Divide the Ride

Pushing a $6 billion transit plan, RTD has met the enemy-- the RTD board.

Forget Eugene O'Neill. Never mind Tennessee Williams. To hell with Miller, Albee, Shepard, Mamet. If you're looking for intricate, incomprehensible scenes of bickering family members engaged in acts of twisted loyalty and stark betrayal, head on down to the Regional Transportation District's headquarters in LoDo.

Admission to the meetings of RTD's board of directors is free.
Last week's special emergency session of the board was a better-than-average performance, since it lasted only an hour. Boardmember Karen Benker accused boardmember Jon Caldara of spreading lies and trying to silence RTD staffers. Boardmember Gloria Holliday called Benker a hypocrite. Boardmember Jack McCroskey castigated RTD general manager Cal Marsella for supplying the board with "fraudulent" information. As for board chairman Ben Klein and boardmember Bob Tonsing--well, here's a fairly typical exchange:

"I have a question for you, Mr. First Vice-Chair," Klein said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Mr. Tonsing, do you not feel comfortable serving on this board, that you have to go around with Transit '97 attacking members of this board?"

"I feel a good deal more comfortable supporting a group that supports the policies of RTD," Tonsing replied, "than I do with boardmembers who are trying to tear down the policies of RTD."

Watching the fur fly, it would be easy to forget that most of these folks are--in theory, at least--on the same side of the issue at hand. In fact, except for Caldara, all of the combatants mentioned above say they're supporters of Guide the Ride, RTD's tax-hike proposal that would fund a twenty-year program of major transit improvements, including several light-rail lines, throughout the metro area.

Yet by the time the meeting was adjourned, the board had approved Caldara's resolutions that RTD would henceforth recognize that Guide the Ride would cost the average taxpayer $50 next year (despite staff calculations indicating a much lower amount) and that the total cost of the project through the year 2035 would be $16 billion, rather than the $8 billion figure claimed by the staff.

Klein claimed that the board proved it wasn't "dysfunctional" by coming clean on the figures, but Tonsing had another interpretation. "You're declaring black to be white," he said.

Black and white tend to blur into shadowy politics at RTD. Just a few months ago, everything seemed to be going right--for a change--at the controversy-riddled transit agency. After years of fractious squabbling over the merits of light rail, the fifteen-member board of directors had finally endorsed the idea of seeking a sales-tax increase to fund Guide the Ride. State legislators, Governor Roy Romer and various mayors and city councils quickly lined up to support the plan.

At the same time, a series of hurdles that could have doomed the ballot issue seemed to simply evaporate. In August the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment hustled the stalled contract negotiations between RTD and its union employees into arbitration, averting what could have been a prolonged, politically damaging strike by bus drivers. In addition, Romer withdrew his support for a whopping gas-and-auto tax, saying the state could meet its highway needs without it. Light-rail boosters had feared that the gas tax would drag RTD's proposal down with it; now it was crippled, and no other major tax requests would be competing with Guide the Ride in the off-year election. It was almost as if the stars had lined up in RTD's favor.

But a lot has changed since that auspicious beginning. Guide the Ride may be headed for a train wreck on November 4; a poll released a few weeks ago indicates that 52 percent of likely voters support the initiative, with 32 percent opposed. While the plan's backers, who commissioned the survey, say they're pleased with their bare majority, the numbers are down slightly from a similar poll taken two months ago. Given the margin of error in such polls, the election could be an extremely tight one.

Part of the problem has to do with the plan's staggering cost and much-debated benefits (see related story, page 22). Equally significant, though, have been the bizarre sniping and intriguing among RTD's own elected board. The most damaging attacks on the campaign and the plan itself have come from the executive offices of the agency that stands to gain the most if the plan passes.

Infighting and fractiousness is nothing new at RTD, of course. Personal and ideological disputes among boardmembers have sparked tantrums, mass walkouts from public meetings, even occasional swearing contests and offers to punch one another's lights out. But the internal debate on the board over Guide the Ride has produced one of the strangest political donnybrooks in recent memory--as well as the spectacle of elected officials working strenuously to undermine a campaign that was supposed to deliver billions to their agency's budget.

Consider the following scenario: One boardmember, a strident opponent of light rail, winds up heading a campaign opposing the project. Outspent and outstaffed by the plan's proponents, he still manages to land some body blows, but not without help from unlikely sources, including his longtime nemesis, the board's famously erratic chairman, a principal figure in getting the plan on the ballot in the first place.

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