Beating the Train

Light-rail opponents plot ways to jump the tracks--with an RTD boardmember leading the charge.

Shortly before six on a Wednesday evening, the first wave of derailers arrives at the charmless offices of the Independence Institute, the conservative think tank in Golden (sign in the window: "Will do public policy for food"). Stragglers come in over the next half-hour. There are eleven of them in all, hardy campaigners about to embark on a bumpy ride. Their mission: Put the brakes on light rail before it turns into a $6 billion monster.

This fall, voters will be asked to approve a 0.4 percent sales-tax hike to fund RTD's Guide the Ride proposal, an ambitious, $5.9 billion plan to build and maintain a huge package of metro-wide transit projects over the next two decades, including several big-ticket light-rail and commuter-rail lines stretching from downtown to the southern and western suburbs and to Denver International Airport. The ballot issue promises to be the most controversial of the off-year election--not only because of its staggering cost, but because of the chronic squabbling among RTD's fifteen-member elected board over the effectiveness of light rail as a rapid-transit panacea ("Runaway Train," December 13, 1995).

Although RTD is prohibited from using public funds to campaign for the tax hike, proponents of the measure have already raised $37,000 from private interests to push for rail. The opposition has been less visible, but Jon Caldara, the most vocal of the minority faction of light-rail critics on the RTD board, hopes to change all that.

"This election is going to be for sale," says Caldara, who describes Guide the Ride as a boondoggle, a fraud, and "DIA on wheels." "It's about insiders making money and not about getting good transit."

Last week Caldara and ten other like-minded rail opponents gathered to come up with a strategy to defeat the tax hike--the first step in what will likely be a noisy public debate over light rail in months to come. Caldara's group, a motley collection of neighborhood activists, Libertarians and conservative ideologues, figures it has pragmatism, economic arguments and the imperatives of the free-enterprise system on its side, but it's up against a juggernaut.

Light rail hasn't exactly taken Denver by storm--most of its present ridership consists of passengers compelled to transfer from bus lines rather than new passengers--but polls indicate that many voters favor rail as a concept, even if they don't ride it. Using existing RTD funds, boosters have managed to build 5.3 miles of track without voter approval; last year they secured a federal commitment of $120 million for an eight-mile extension to Littleton, and they plan to build a lot more with the tax hike (which, they argue, doesn't really amount to a $6 billion construction project, since that figure includes debt service and operating and maintenance costs, calculated in terms of inflated dollars). And Transit '97, the well-heeled group campaigning in support of Guide the Ride, claims a wide base of support among city and county officials, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, developers and contractors, engineers and financial concerns, Sierra Club types and other rapid-transit fans. What can a handful of naysayers do to stop them?

Westword sat in on the first strategy session of Caldara's committee. Here's how it went:

Caldara calls the meeting to order. Among those in attendance: Republican state representative Penn Pfiffner, whose district includes a residential neighborhood in Lakewood targeted for a light-rail line; Lakewood City Councilwoman Kathy Knobel; former RTD boardmember Dave Bishop; veteran lobbyist and consultant Miller Hudson; and Independence Institute senior fellow Steve Mueller, who explains that the institute isn't sponsoring the meeting but merely making the room available.

Caldara announces that the intent is not to discuss what's wrong with light rail but to figure out how to stop it. He then launches into an impromptu riff on what's wrong with light rail.

"The proposal is easy to rip apart statistically," he says, and proceeds to pepper his audience with figures. RTD currently carries about 2 percent of all commuter trips in the metro area; without the Guide the Ride package, its market share is projected to creep to 2.3 percent by 2020. If the sales tax is approved, the number goes up--to around 3 percent. That minimal budge in ridership is expected to cost a family of four between $9,000 and $12,000 over the life of the tax.

"By RTD's own numbers, this does absolutely nothing for traffic congestion, absolutely nothing for air pollution," Caldara declares. "All it does is make some people rich."

Worse, he adds, RTD is plunging ahead with the tax proposal even though the agency has conducted major investment studies in only three of the seven major transit corridors and has yet to designate what form of rapid transit--light rail, commuter rail, high-occupancy vehicle lanes--would be used in three of the remaining corridors. "It could be HOV or it could be the Elitch's log ride," he snorts.

Miller Hudson, who was active in the campaign against light rail when it was brought to the voters in the early 1980s, notes that his group was far outspent by the rail boosters but still managed to defeat the tax. One key piece of campaign literature, he recalls, was a pamphlet that suggested it would be cheaper for RTD to purchase a fleet of Mercedes sedans and hire chauffeurs for its meager riders than to build light rail.

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