It's the Rail Thing

For some Lakewood homeowners, RTD's proposed light-rail line looms too close for comfort.

CAC members who voted for the light-rail line acknowledge that RTD's ownership of the right-of-way made the route more economical, but they insist that wasn't the only factor or even a major one in their decision. Faced with worsening traffic on the Sixth Avenue freeway that has spilled over to West Colfax, West Alameda and various side streets, the group looked at more than a dozen possible solutions, from monorail and subways to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the freeway itself.

Most of the suggestions, Johnston says, were either technologically unproven or too costly. For example, widening the freeway to add HOV lanes would involve removing more than a hundred homes, compared to the twenty to thirty residences that may have to be acquired along West 13th; and West Colfax merchants were adamantly opposed to the kind of bottleneck a light-rail line on their street would create.

"The committee looked at every alternative," says RTD project director Andrea Garcia. "Yes, this [alignment] has impacts, but it has the least impacts and the most benefits for the corridor."

CAC member Dave Ruchman points out that the most vocal critics of the group's decision declined to attend most of the meetings. "When they stopped coming, we were still a long way from a decision," he says. "The people who show up for meetings, whether it's the city council or the U.S. Senate--who else should make the decision? For these Johnny-come-latelies to come in and try to delegitimize the process, that's not fair."

Although the CAC had around 110 residents and business owners in the affected area on its mailing list, only twenty or thirty "regulars" followed the process from beginning to end. Ferguson says she knows of several CAC members, herself included, who didn't receive prior notification of the January 30 meeting at which the vote for light rail was taken. (RTD's Garcia insists that mailing was handled no differently from the others.) In any case, the vote wasn't on the agenda for that meeting; in fact, a notice sent out the day before the meeting indicated that the vote would take place the following week.

Ruchman says he made a motion for a vote "for discussion purposes" and was surprised when the group ended up favoring the 13th Avenue line by a tally of 14-1. "We didn't pre-cook this," he says. "I hadn't talked to anyone prior to the meeting about this, and yet the group was overwhelmingly in favor of light rail."

The recommendation has since been endorsed by various local government and business interests, including several West Colfax car dealers, who like the idea of customers arriving by light rail a couple of blocks away rather than tying up auto traffic on their own thoroughfare. RTD estimates that the line will carry 24,000 daily riders by the year 2015--half of them from within the corridor, half from outlying areas--but those numbers have come under attack at public meetings. ("You can't have local service and rapid transit for commuters at the same time," Keller argues.)

The plan has adherents even among those who live adjacent to the tracks, but other homeowners have raised a host of issues about noise, safety, and increased traffic in the neighborhood from commuters going to and from the train. Although the line won't be operational for at least eight years, some fear an immediate dip in property values and a long-term slide in quality of life. The west Denver portion of the route rolls through a series of parks, but in Lakewood, many homes are set back only a few yards from the right-of-way, which will have to accommodate double tracks.

In some cases, Garcia notes, residents have mistakenly extended their property line into the right-of-way. "Some of them have put structures that are actually in our right-of-way, and others have put fences there," Garcia says. "People say there's no way to get through there because the houses are so close, but in some cases it's because they have come onto RTD property."

Before it squeezes its train through the heart of Lakewood, RTD must first walk an even finer line with voters and the legislature. The agency has embarked on a barrage of "town meetings" designed to build support for its twenty-year transit plan, which will hinge on voters approving a sales tax increase expected to be on the November ballot. At the same time, the state legislature is considering a bill that would require RTD to competitively bid up to 50 percent of its operations--a move that boardmember Caldara insists could save enough money to fund many transit improvements without a tax increase.

The privatization effort is being pushed by Republican state representative Penn Pfiffner, whose district includes a hefty slice of the west corridor. Pfiffner is openly skeptical of RTD's arguments in favor of the western line and views the project as doing more harm than good. "You're introducing an industrial element into a residential area," he says. "You can't landscape this; you can't put a tree down the middle of the track. You're going to have a big, ugly, open scar running through what is now a very green and settled area."

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