Mystery Train

Squabbles and spin control at RTD's light-rail lovefest.

The sun refused to appear last Thursday morning at the Regional Transportation District's light-rail station at I-25 and Broadway, but nobody seemed to mind. There were plenty of other dignitaries on hand, and this was clearly Ben Klein's moment to shine.

Klein, the chairman of RTD's elected board of directors, shared the dais with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena, who had come to praise Ben Klein and RTD and to sign a full funding agreement--a pledge by the Clinton administration to provide $120 million toward the construction of the Southwest Corridor, an eight-mile extension of the light-rail line to Littleton.

"This is the greatest achievement ever at RTD," a giddy Klein announced to the assembled crowd, shortly before getting on his knees to sign an oversized mockup of the agreement. "This is a huge leap forward and proves what we've known all along--that this is a viable project. I hope I'm not stealing a slogan, but--imagine a great RTD!"

The scene had its surreal qualities: Imagine Klein, the only member of the present RTD board to vote against the Southwest Corridor when it was first authorized two years ago, celebrating its viability. Imagine Pena--the point man for Denver's last multibillion-dollar major public works project, Denver International Airport, during his two terms as mayor--offering RTD money that doesn't exist yet, since the funding agreement is contingent on congressional approval.

But surrealism seems to be the hallmark of Klein's chairmanship at RTD. The signing ceremony capped off an unusually hectic couple of weeks at the battle-scarred agency, marked by politically charged squabbles that have split boardmembers--never the best of friends--into two deeply divided camps and raised troubling questions about the agency's future under Klein's leadership.

"There's a real leadership void right now," says boardmember Jon Caldara, one of Klein's harshest critics. "Who is running RTD? Is it Ben Klein or [boardmembers] Phil Anderson and Karen Benker? Either way, it's messed up."

Two weeks before the signing ceremony, at a hastily called special meeting, eight boardmembers--including Anderson and Benker, who have led the battle for light rail--voted unanimously to authorize Klein to enter into the full funding agreement and appropriate an additional $17.7 million in agency funds for the Littleton route. But seven other boardmembers didn't even attend, either because they were notified too late or were boycotting the meeting in protest.

"They voted 8-0 to approve something that might never happen," notes boardmember David Bishop--who, like Caldara, has been a vocal critic of the pro-rail faction.

A week later, Caldara and five other boardmembers called a press conference to accuse Benker of organizing luncheon meetings for a segment of the board while failing to properly notify other members, in violation of open-meetings laws and the agency's own bylaws.

"This is not just about light rail," says Caldara, noting that the luncheon attendees talked about RTD's planned reorganization and other matters as well as the Southwest Corridor. "There's been a clear and deliberate attempt to exclude almost half the board from policy discussions."

Benker and Klein have defended the luncheons as fully legal, informal gatherings of like-minded boardmembers. They've also suggested that the press conference was an act of retaliation by members upset with the vote to accept the federal cash. "I'm hoping to unify the board," says Klein. "We do have philosophical differences, but I hope this isn't about personalities. We have an obligation to the entire six-county district."

Caldara, though, has vowed to pursue his charges--through a lawsuit, if necessary. Two other dissident members, Bishop and Daniel Gallegos, are already involved in another lawsuit against RTD, seeking to force the agency to return $5.7 million in 1993 revenues to taxpayers; Klein was recently successful in banning the pair from meetings in which the lawsuit is discussed.

With all the feuding, if the Southwest Corridor were put to a vote today, it seems doubtful that the current RTD board would approve it. By statute, any board vote authorizing construction of a "regional fixed guideway mass-transit system" requires a two-thirds majority, or ten votes of approval; part of the frustration of the light-rail dissenters is that the vote on the Littleton line occurred back in the spring of 1994, before most of them were elected--and seven months before the downtown "demonstration line" even opened.

Klein was one of only two dissenters in the 1994 vote. Indeed, his reputation as an independent, albeit erratic, voice on the board was largely responsible for his ascension to the chairmanship last spring. At the time, both Anderson and Benker argued against his candidacy; Benker even wrote letters to newspapers pointing out that he'd voted against light rail thirteen times in the previous two years. "Ben Klein does not support transit, and Ben Klein should not be chairman of RTD," she wrote.

Under heavy lobbying from the Webb administration, though, Klein changed his tune on light rail. By last fall he had become an enthusiastic supporter, saying the overwhelming popularity of the demonstration line had persuaded him to get behind the project. In January, after some strenuous backroom politicking, he was re-elected as chairman by a vote of 14-1, having secured pledges of support from both sides of the light-rail controversy.

Since that time, though, the light-rail critics have become increasingly caustic in their appraisals of Klein and what they regard as the "undue influence" of Benker and Anderson, who came to the board in 1993. Boardmember Ron Nichol notes that both Benker and Anderson are state employees--Benker works in the governor's budget office, Anderson is a policy analyst for the Colorado Department of Transportation--and claims they have more time to devote to board committees than other members. "They're much more occupied with RTD than the chairman is," Nichol says. "Anderson seems to spend all his time at RTD; I think he's cheating the taxpayers. Karen Benker is always calling meetings, but she won't talk to any of us."

Anderson dismisses the complaint as unfounded. "There's no conflict of interest whatsoever," he says. "Conflict is a fiduciary issue, and there's nothing like that here. We just have to keep doing our work and get past these disagreements. The citizens want this project."

So does the Clinton administration. After being curiously unmoved by RTD's earlier requests for funding, the Federal Transit Administration abruptly announced an election-year package of full funding agreements in six cities--"a reflection of President Clinton's commitment to our communities throughout the United States," Pena said.

Will that commitment translate into real money? RTD's lobbyists and Anderson say it will, based on the past track record of such agreements. Caldara is more skeptical, viewing last week's soiree as a bit of meaningless political symbolism.

By the time Caldara arrived at the signing ceremony, the refreshment tent was out of lemonade, but there were still plenty of sour grapes to go around. "I've never been to a Clinton rally before," he said. "Until a Republican Congress says it's going to authorize this, it's a paper tiger."

Caldara insists he isn't "anti-rail"--he just wants more affordable transit alternatives. Although mass-transit planning is supposed to avoid competing technologies in the same corridor, he points out that Santa Fe Drive is already being expanded to accommodate high-occupany vehicle lanes.

"Which means," he adds, "if this goes through, drivers will be able to reach out and shake hands with light-rail riders. I just think, at a time when our market share is shrinking, we're hurting our riders by pushing feel-good transit instead of realistic transit."

None of the carping, though, could dim the day for the folks on the podium. "It's time to put aside our differences," Klein declared as the ceremony ended. "It's time to stop studying this [project]. It's time to stop talking and go ahead and build it.

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