RUNAWAY TRAINCONGRESS SPURNED IT, STATE LAWMAKERS SCORN IT, BUT CAN ANYBODY PUT THE BRAKES ON LIGHT RAIL?

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The train pulls away from the Broadway Marketplace station with a meek oomph of acceleration, headed for downtown. It ascends above Alameda Avenue, whips through the railyards, leans into West Colfax--no rumbling, no lurching, no clacking, just that oh-so-slight push at the start, like a cat bumping up against you or the gentle rise of a dentist's chair.

"Isn't this nice?" asks a beaming Jack McCroskey. "You have to admit that, compared to a bus, it's a smooth ride."

McCroskey knows a thing or two about buses. He rode plenty during his ten years on the board of directors of the Regional Transportation District. Now he rides a light-rail train twice a day, along with a smattering of Auraria students, south Denver commuters, downtown business types and Five Points residents. Sometimes he has errands downtown; sometimes he just wants to introduce visitors to that smooth ride. Having led the campaign to launch the $120 million line, the seventy-year-old former RTD chairman is considered the godfather of light rail in Denver, and he shows off the gleaming white trains--electric, smokeless, rumble-free--with the proprietary air of a priest contemplating his nave.

"People who ride it seem to like it," he says, his gaze settling on a bookish young woman sitting across from him. "How about you? Do you like the light rail?"

"Oh, I love it," she says. "I go to Metro, and we get a bus pass with our student fees."

A security guard strolls down the aisle, inspecting tickets. McCroskey produces his lifetime pass. RTD has only three fare inspectors for the entire line, which means riders on half the trains aren't checked at all. But the agency estimates that barely 1 percent of light-rail passengers violate its honor-system fare policy. Although 7,334 suspected deadbeats were ordered off the trains during the first year of operation, only 37 were issued citations for fare evasion.

Not that it matters. If RTD had to depend on $1 peak fares to fund its light-rail project, the trains would never leave the station. In the world of rapid transit, fare-box revenues are mere chump change. It costs RTD far more to operate than it can collect from passengers--around $1.70 per passenger to operate a bus, around $2.34 per passenger to run light rail. More than 80 percent of the agency's $300 million annual budget comes not from fares but through various public subsidies--sales taxes, use taxes, federal grants and the like.

In other words, people pay for mass transit whether they ride or not; there's no way of evading the fare. One of the selling points of light rail was RTD's pledge that the downtown phase wouldn't cost the people of Denver one dime in additional taxes--"and we delivered on that promise," McCroskey says. But ask the godfather about the future of light rail, and his mood darkens. Proud as he is of the existing 5.3 miles of not-so-rapid transit, McCroskey has become one of the harshest critics of RTD's plans to expand.

"We told everyone that this would be a demonstration project," he says. "That people would have a chance to look it over and decide if they wanted more of it before we did anything else. Well, that's not happening."

What is happening is that light rail is going south--first to the deserted Cinderella City shopping mall in Englewood, then on to Littleton, at a cost of roughly $18 million per mile. The fifteen-member RTD board first okayed the proposed addition in the spring of 1994, seven months before its downtown "demonstration line" even opened. No public referendum has ever been held on the proj-ect, and federal funding for it has all but evaporated, but RTD is pressing forward anyway, its plans fueled by behind-the-scenes politicking and creative financing. Scheduled to open in 1999, the $140 million Southwest Corridor won't dramatically improve light-rail ridership right away, but that's beside the point. Its backers hope to keep the project alive while forestalling the day of reckoning, when voters will be asked for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in tax increases to finance a metro-wide system.

Starting with just an oomph of encouragement, light rail has been picking up momentum at a bewildering rate. The feds snubbed it. State legislators have ridiculed it as a white elephant on wheels. Some of RTD's own boardmembers have questioned its usefulness and its ridership figures. But no one, it seems, knows how to stop it.

"Basically, this is a money game," says Jon Caldara, one of a handful of light-rail skeptics on the current board. "There are people who are going to do well politically and financially over this. We're screaming for service in other areas, yet there's this incredible political force to build this light-rail line that serves so few people but taxes so many. You have to wonder where the motivation is coming from."

Supporters of the southern extension say the driving force isn't politics but increasing congestion in the metro area and the need to get moving on a solution. "This is not an inexpensive endeavor, but with traffic volumes growing 3 to 5 percent a year, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize we have to do something," says Phil Anderson, who unseated McCroskey in the 1992 RTD board election and has emerged as one of the principal crusaders for rapid transit. "Light rail has been studied for over twenty years in metro Denver, and the opportunity is there to move the project ahead."

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