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Unfinished Business

Keeping track of the political--and personal--agendas at stake in RTD board races.

In past years, the Regional Transportation District board elections have had all the political excitement and heart-pounding suspense of a Ross Perot infomercial. But this fall's slate offers more drama than most congressional races; candidates have squared off over the future of Denver's light-rail system, swapped insults over the accomplishments and back-room intrigues of the present board, and squabbled over who deserves the credit (or the blame) for the current state of affairs at RTD.

The debate has been further enlivened by the emergence of several contests that resemble all-star wrestling grudge matches. Among the 21 candidates vying for nine seats on the board are a former chairman of the board, seeking to reclaim his position from the man who beat him four years ago; the husband of another former boardmember, hoping to defeat the incumbent who displaced his wife; and a former RTD staffer whose husband still works for the agency. Although three positions are uncontested, it seems likely that enough seats will change hands to upset the delicate balance of confusion that has characterized RTD's leadership over the last two years.

The 1994 elections brought six newcomers to the fifteen-member RTD board, several of whom ran unopposed and were severe critics of plans to extend the present 5.3-mile light-rail line from Broadway and I-25 eight miles southwest to Mineral Avenue. Since then, the board has split 8-7 on several key votes and feuded publicly over charges of secret meetings, political favors, minority hiring practices, fat severance packages for senior staffers, board travel expenses and other management issues while lurching ahead with plans for the $140 million light-rail line to Littleton ("Mystery Train," May 16; "Wheels of Fortune," August 29).

"The spotlight on the RTD board, intense as it's been, does have a positive side," notes boardmember Karen Benker. "People are paying attention to this election."

This time around, most of the candidates say they support light rail. But there are drastic disagreements over where the line should go next, how it should be financed, when voter approval of the mushrooming project should be sought, and who should lead the effort to build what has been touted as the largest public-works undertaking in Colorado since Denver International Airport. Three key races to watch:

The Return of the Father
In central Denver, incumbent Phil Anderson, one of the strongest proponents of the Littleton route, faces four challengers: light-rail naysayer David Aitken, Doug Anderson (who's reportedly running to pull votes from Phil and benefit fellow Libertarian Aitken), newcomer Wayne Frank (a light-rail supporter) and former board chairman and arch-gadfly Jack McCroskey.

After a decade on the board, McCroskey was unseated in 1992 by Anderson, a defeat he blames on a "fluke" that placed his name in a disadvantageous spot on the ballot. His campaign fliers boast that he's "the only RTD candidate who does not drive" and proclaims that he's "the 'father' of Denver's existing light-rail line."

Although McCroskey led the fight to build the first segment of light rail in downtown Denver in the early 1990s, he's been a relentless critic of the present board's plan to build its next extension to the southwest--a move that RTD's own projections indicate will do little to boost ridership or improve air quality. The smarter move, he insists, would be to link the present terminus at South Broadway to congested South Colorado Boulevard along a Buchtel Boulevard right-of-way RTD already owns. While declining to supply specific figures, he insists that the three-mile line could be built using funds RTD already has.

"I've talked to a lot of people, and the support for such a line is just overwhelming," McCroskey declares. "When you look at the traffic figures, you can't help but conclude it's a better place to go. Clearly, going southwest has nothing to do with public transportation."

Phil Anderson, though, says the southeast route can't follow the alignment McCroskey is proposing because of community opposition, and it would prove to be more costly and time-consuming than his opponent realizes. "It's not as easy as it sounds," snaps Anderson, whose campaign fliers holler "PHIL" in big letters to distinguish him from upstart Doug. "He wants to turn the corner--to where? When? With what money? I think it's just an electioneering scam."

A policy analyst with the Colorado Department of Transportation, Phil Anderson notes that RTD has already invested millions in studying the southwest corridor and has obtained a "full funding agreement" from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena--a pledge from the Clinton administration to provide $120 million toward construction of the line. With Pena's help, the agency has received a $1.5 million appropriation toward that amount in the current federal budget, plus an additional $1.3 million in unused funds from other federal transit projects.

"We know we have tremendous support in Washington, regionally and locally for this corridor," Anderson says. "This happens to be one of the most cost-effective light-rail projects in the country."

Anderson's campaign literature credits him with playing "a major role" in obtaining the $120 million federal grant. Although Congress hasn't authorized the expenditure yet, Anderson contends that the history of such agreements indicates the money will be delivered. But McCroskey calls the claim a "flat-out lie."

"This is just horse manure," he says. "He says he led the fight to get $120 million, but they didn't get $120 million. What they did get, in four years, is a million and a half--and they probably spent more than that on lobbyists to get it. He has not built an inch of track beyond what was already under way when he got there."

The Bureaucrat and the Tooth Fairy
Another key race in RTD's district M (Lakewood and parts of Wheat Ridge) pits incumbent Karen Benker--who, with Anderson, has led the fight for the Littleton line--against college student William McCullough and geophysicist David Zimmerman, both of whom support the southwest route, and engineer Robert Steele, who says he endorses light rail in principle but has serious reservations about the "quality of leadership" on the board.

Steele's wife, Helen, was a boardmember for eight years, until Benker won the seat four years ago. He admits his wife played no small part in getting him to run. "One morning there was a petition on the table at breakfast, and she said the tooth fairy put it there," he recalls. "I realized I might lose my teeth if I didn't run."

Steele says he's fed up with the "petty, childish bickering" of the board and blasts what he calls "the Romer contingent" of bureaucrats at the agency, including Benker (who works in the governor's budget office) and CDOT analyst Anderson. He wants to see a public referendum on the future of light rail and a more "professional," less politically motivated board of directors at RTD.

"The governor's office took a heavy hand in the election four years ago," Steele says. "I don't think he really believes in representative government. The result is that we're blowing our opportunity and fouling our home."

Benker, though, denies any conflict between her work in the governor's office and her position as a boardmember; both she and Anderson say they use their own vacation and personal leaves, rather than state time, to perform their duties as $250-a-month RTD officials.

"When I was first elected, I had a meeting with the governor," Benker explains. "It was very clear that he would never influence my vote on RTD matters. We've probably chatted three times about RTD in the past four years."

Benker insists the present board has been highly productive, in terms of both advancing light-rail plans and improving bus services. She stresses that she has the experience to deal with future planning decisions that could be quite contentious. "The real question is, how hard will the board work to implement its plans? I'm not only going to vote for the projects that make sense, I'm going to work hard to see that they succeed."

Rosemary's Hubby
Perhaps the most intriguing candidate for the board is Rosemary Paolillo, who is running unopposed for the Aurora seat now held by light-rail opponent Dave Bishop. Paolillo worked in customer services for RTD for six years, and her husband, Robert, is employed there as an equipment maintenance supervisor. A spokesman for the agency declines to comment on whether Paolillo's termination was voluntary or not; Paolillo will say only that she had "philosophical differences as to the way things should be done" in her department.

The lack of an opponent means that Paolillo will almost certainly be the first elected boardmember who has a spouse on RTD's staff, prompting some observers to wonder if she might have to recuse herself on numerous issues to avoid a potential conflict of interest. But Paolillo doesn't see a problem, since her husband is not a member of the union and would not be affected by many staffing issues that come before the board. "I would abstain from voting on his salary, but that's it," she says.

In the past, members of the RTD board have been accused of meddling mightily in staff matters, pressuring senior officials to hire or promote certain individuals or to award lucrative consulting contracts to close associates. Paolillo, though, says she's more interested in working closely with local government to secure better transit services in Aurora than she is in changing the way things are done at RTD.

"We have a general manager who knows how to run a bus company," she says. "My job is to make sure that our community gets the services they deserve."

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