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.

This same chairman feuds publicly and bitterly with the leaders of the group running the Guide the Ride campaign, denouncing them as "interlopers" and seeking to cut off hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for their efforts. Meanwhile another boardmember, celebrated as the "father" of Denver's existing light-rail line, promotes his own alternative plan--and makes no secret of his lack of confidence in the ability of RTD's staff to implement the megaproject or to provide an accurate accounting of its cost.

Played for laughs, the situation might be promising material for a black comedy. But is this any way to run a transit agency, when billions of dollars in tax revenues and the future of transportation in the metro area are at stake?

At RTD, it's the only way.

Light rail has forged ahead at RTD by fits and spurts, fueled by a tenuous majority of the board, whose capacity for shifting allegiances is legendary.

For the past three years, the pro-rail camp on the board has been plagued by a nettlesome group of mavericks and reformers, some of whom ran unopposed for their seats. Although the vote last spring to put Guide the Ride on the ballot carried 12-3, that healthy majority included boardmembers who didn't like the plan but believed it was time to put it before the public. An earlier vote on the plan drew only nine votes in support, and some light-rail funding has squeaked through by an 8-7 margin.

The most vocal critic of Guide the Ride has been Jon Caldara, who's been railing against rail since his 1994 election to the board. Not content with voting against the plan and testifying against it at the legislature, in July Caldara launched a formal opposition campaign to the proposal, Concerned Commuters of Colorado ("Beating the Train," July 24).

Caldara's group hasn't begun to match Transit '97, the group campaigning for Guide the Ride, in size or funding. By the end of last month Transit '97 had raised more than $300,000 and spent $219,000; CCC had raised $7,671 and spent $355. But the naysayers have made their presence felt, largely through Caldara's visibility as an RTD boardmember. In dozens of debates and op-ed pieces, he's blasted Guide the Ride as "a LoDo redevelopment plan" and "DIA on wheels."

A sharp debater, Caldara has swooped into the fray armed with reams of statistics to support his claims of the plan's outlandish cost and poor ridership. Most of the figures were prepared by RTD's own staff, which, although barred from campaigning directly for the cause, has been pressed into service by both sides to supply data.

"The staff has been used by the negative campaign," sighs boardmember Tonsing, who also serves on the executive committee of Transit '97--and who has made his own requests of staff to come up with figures to counter Caldara's claims. "They say these are RTD's own numbers, but they aren't, really. Sure, the staff operated the calculator, but that's as 'official' as it gets."

Yet Caldara has been able to score some critical points in his crusade, largely by making an issue out of Transit '97's funding. In August he managed to persuade a majority of the board, including several Guide the Ride supporters, to adopt a resolution barring RTD from entering into contracts with businesses that donated more than $100 to the tax-hike campaign. The move was unprecedented--what other public agency would cut off the cash flow for its own referendum less than three months before the election?--and brought down the wrath of the free-speech guardians at the American Civil Liberties Union.

"That resolution was aimed straight at the heart of Transit '97," Tonsing says.

Last month U.S. District Judge John Kane granted the ACLU and Transit '97 an injunction striking down the resolution, calling it "blatantly unconstitutional." Last week a federal appeals court upheld Kane's ruling, but in many ways, the resolution has already done what it was intended to do. It cast the spotlight on the bond companies and engineering firms that were donating thousands to Transit '97 (a few of whom promptly demanded their money back), and it threw the campaign's fundraising into disarray.

"That's the one thing that really had an impact," concedes Transit '97 spokesman Keith DuBay. "They gutted us from our big money. That should have been a death blow to this campaign, but it wasn't."

DuBay says the campaign had originally hoped to raise $700,000. Now the goal is $500,000, which will cut into the television-ad budget but still allow for a major blitz of radio and direct mail in the final days before the election.

The $100 cap also exposed a broadening rift between board chairman Ben Klein, a key supporter of Guide the Ride, and Transit '97. Although Caldara and Klein have tangled on a number of issues over the years, Klein enthusiastically supported the resolution, saying he wanted to run "a clean campaign." But he's also questioned the motives of the Transit '97 leadership and blasted the group for snubbing him and other boardmembers in their campaign events.

"They've just told me to go to hell, basically," Klein says. "As far as I'm concerned, they're interlopers. Who asked them to get involved in this anyway--and why?"

Klein's role in the debate has been a particularly slippery one. Three years ago he was one of only two dissenters on the board to oppose expansion of the current light-rail line. A few months later, after some frantic back-room politicking had secured him the board chairmanship, he became an enthusiastic backer of the expansion. Largely on the strength of his crucial "swing vote" on light-rail issues, he's been re-elected chair for two years running. ("I was the one who put together the eight votes that got him re-elected last time," Tonsing says.)

But Klein has since had a falling-out with the coalition of business and political interests that formed Transit '97 to raise money for the Guide the Ride campaign. Tonsing says the group tried to include Klein in its early strategy sessions, but the chairman's "personal animus" toward the campaign's backers got in the way.

"He declined to have any part of it," Tonsing says. "It's not a unilateral thing. He was, almost from the beginning, disparaging the leaders of Transit '97."

Klein says Transit '97 is "one of the most disturbing things I've seen since I've been in politics. I have never seen people like this come in and take over a campaign, say they'll get the contributions, and here it is. That bunch is only looking for a contract. They want to pick the pockets of the public and RTD, and I just don't want to associate with that kind of thing."

The chairman has openly questioned the motives of some major players at Transit '97, including Howard Gelt, the co-chair of the group's fundraising committee. Gelt's law firm, Sherman & Howard, has worked closely with RTD on bond issues and could gain millions if Guide the Ride passes; but Gelt also served on the board of the Transit Construction Authority several years ago, a short-lived attempt to fund transit projects without RTD's help. Klein is still seething over what he describes as the TCA's attempt "to raid the funds of RTD," as well as more recent slights, including not being invited to Transit '97 media events such as a recent "birthday party" for light rail.

"These people don't know good public relations," Klein says. "For them to treat members of the board so dirty and ignore them is ridiculous. I don't think there's a person in political office that likes to get kicked around the way Transit '97 has kicked me around."

Klein insists he's still a wholehearted supporter of Guide the Ride. When Tonsing questioned his loyalty to the cause, in light of his backing of Caldara's funding cap, Klein defended himself in a curt memo that concluded, "I hope everybody isn't relying on Transit '97 to win this election." Tonsing shot back with a blistering response that Klein promptly distributed to the rest of the board.

Tonsing took Klein to task for "your ongoing vendetta against Transit '97 in general, and Howard Gelt and the leadership of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce in particular, over transactions that are ancient history or simply never happened. This is very destructive behavior and damages your own reputation most of all."

It didn't help matters, he added, that the chairman had used public debates over Guide the Ride to express his unhappiness with general manager Marsella and his staff. "In the past you have piously claimed that you are simply exercising your rights as an elected official, but when you were first elected chairman you tearfully promised to stop persecuting the staff," Tonsing wrote.

"Ben, you are skating on very thin ice. I have done my level best to shield you from public embarrassments instigated by those who want to bring you down, but that task is getting more and more difficult as you...regularly and publicly bully and heap insults on staff members who have no adequate way to defend themselves."

The chairman shrugs off the criticism. "They can say what they want, but my record speaks for itself," Klein snaps. "I cast the deciding vote to put Guide the Ride on the ballot. I'm more for Guide the Ride than Bob Tonsing is; he's acting like he's not even a member of the board. I figure I'm as good a political strategist as Bob Tonsing is, was, and ever will be."

Klein says that he's been "threatened" with opposition by Transit '97 supporters if he runs for re-election to the board next year and that he's heard rumors that the group was going to Denver mayor Wellington Webb trying to seek his recall as chairman. But none of the supposed threats have swayed Klein from his course.

Last month he fired off a letter to Webb's office, asking why the board hadn't been invited to an upcoming Webb press conference on Guide the Ride; mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson (who used to work for Klein at RTD) replied that no such press conference was scheduled and that Klein should stop "spreading goofy rumors about Mayor Webb to the press." Klein has also written to Romer and state legislators opposing the appointment of RTD staffer Manuel Herrera III to a state bonding authority, arguing that Herrera has a conflict of interest because he works closely with George K. Baum, a bond company that has a contract with RTD (and which also employs Transit '97 activist Chris Romer, the governor's son). Herrera had been selected for his executive post at RTD over another applicant supported by Klein.

Transit '97's DuBay says the group is trying to steer clear of Klein's attacks and board politics in general. "It's our job to run a public campaign," he says. "We are being purposely passive because we're here to talk about traffic. We're not here to fix the board."

Ben Klein may prove to be the opposition's most potent secret weapon in the Guide the Ride campaign, but he's not the only one. Gloria Holliday, another supporter of the plan, also voted for the cap on fundraising and has criticized the RTD staff's financial calculations on the project as "stupid nonsense." Holliday's reservations, though, seem minor compared to the flanking maneuver conducted by ostensible GTR supporter Jack McCroskey.

Five years ago, McCroskey, then chairman of the RTD board, led the bruising political battle to build Denver's "demonstration" light-rail line from South Broadway to Five Points. After losing to light-rail booster Phil Anderson in the 1992 election, McCroskey was re-elected to the board last fall. A cornerstone of his campaign was an attack on RTD's plans to extend the light-rail line down Santa Fe Drive to Littleton; the self-proclaimed "father of light rail" insisted that linking the present line to congested South Colorado Boulevard would be a smarter move ("Unfinished Business," October 31, 1996).

Although McCroskey voted for Guide the Ride, which includes rail lines in both the southwest and southeast corridors, he's continued to push his alternative proposal, arguing that RTD could build a $400 million line all the way to the Denver Tech Center without a tax hike simply by making more efficient use of existing revenues. He's written letters to members of Congress about his plan, courted editorial boards at newspapers, and pitched the idea at debates. The result has been columns in both Denver dailies questioning whether the tax hike is needed--and another crack in the unified front Guide the Ride's supporters have tried to present.

McCroskey now says he voted for the ballot issue "with some misgivings, and I have to say they've grown over time. The plan is very seriously flawed. I'm also concerned about the staff's ability and the board's ability to keep it under control. This is a hell of a chunk of money."

Light rail's papa argues that light rail down the southeast corridor makes sense: "That's where the problem is. If any line has a chance to be productive, that's the line." But he questions the viability of the plan's proposed commuter line to Golden ("I don't think that will carry anybody") and believes a diesel train to DIA is "silly." If voters okay the project, he vows, he'll do his "dead-level best" to kill the Golden line and see that the DIA route becomes a light-rail line that could be linked to the existing system without forcing passengers to transfer.

Tonsing says McCroskey is seeking to create distractions ("That's Jack's style") and that his proposal isn't "a good-faith alternative."

"I never took his support too seriously anyway," Tonsing says. "Some of this is just pure tactics; there hasn't been what I would call a solid supporter [of Guide the Ride] on the board that's moved one inch."

But if McCroskey's defection didn't exactly surprise the Guide the Ride camp, it has coincided with other, more startling developments, including his evident rapprochement with RTD's chairman. Two years ago McCroskey called Ben Klein "the most hypocritical man I know." The pair have a history of clashes dating back to a 1992 letter Klein reportedly wrote to Romer insinuating that McCroskey had lost the Jewish vote in his district by purchasing light-rail cars from a German manufacturer. (Klein's board subsequently purchased cars from the same company.)

Yet these days Klein and McCroskey speak warmly of each other as old friends. "Klein is like taxes and death--he'll be there," McCroskey explains. "Ben's done some things that I approve of. He's been willing to listen to some of the arguments I've made, and I think I've been able to have some influence on his statements. Right now I get along with him, and we agree on many things."

One area of agreement between the two men has been their mutual antipathy for Cal Marsella and RTD's executive staff. McCroskey has long taken issue with what he considers to be the arrogance and spendthrift ways of the agency's staff, and at public meetings, both he and Klein have berated the general manager with barely disguised contempt. (To his credit, Marsella hasn't responded in kind, even though the snarling over the Guide the Ride financial projections has reached new depths of invective.) Whatever else these tirades have accomplished, they've done little to further public confidence in the ability of RTD's staff and board to work together on a massive transit project.

"I don't see us working together," McCroskey declares. "I see a staff that's way oversized and overpaid. If we get ourselves somewhere between six and eighteen billion more [dollars], that will really worry me. Mr. Marsella doesn't have the same interests I have. His staff doesn't think they work for me at all."

Caldara's opposition campaign has seized on such statements and run with them. One CCC press release even quoted Klein and McCroskey expressing their "doubts that the 'Guide the Ride' transit system will ever be built."

Tonsing concedes that Caldara has been able to exploit the rifts among board and staff to his own advantage. "I get caught up in them, and I guess I regret that," Tonsing says. "His strategy has been regrettable but effective."

The Klein-McCroskey alliance has also been instrumental in launching a series of public debates about Guide the Ride featuring boardmembers. Tonsing claims the debates have cut into Transit '97's opportunities to bring speakers to civic groups and have featured far more vigorous arguments against the plan (by Caldara) than for it. From Tonsing's perspective, Klein's "pro" pitch has been particularly weak, since it basically urges people to put their faith in RTD's volatile leadership.

"You've got to have trust in the plan and trust in the people who will administer it," Klein told the movers and shakers of the City Club of Denver at the Brown Palace last month. "If you think the legislature is going to run RTD, you're mistaken. We will control the way Guide the Ride will be administered."

Klein says he's not pursuing any agenda of his own but merely seeking to make a "full disclosure" about what voters are being asked to approve. Yet even as the Transit '97 allies on the board have seen their association with the campaign come under attack, they have come to question the motives of the rest of the board--including Ben "Trust Me" Klein. "He's manufacturing controversy as we speak," Tonsing says.

Last week Tonsing discovered that, minutes after a conference to set the agenda for the board's monthly public meeting, Klein used his authority as chairman to instruct the executive secretary to place two additional items on the agenda for discussion: the issue of same-sex spouse benefits for RTD staff (which Klein had brought up months before) and a review of the general manager's salary. Neither can of worms was something Tonsing wanted to open, particularly two weeks before the election.

"The timing is suspicious," Tonsing says. "I don't know of anyone who particularly wanted to address these [issues] before November. There's no other explanation but that they're both going to arouse passions on the board."

But arousing passions has never been a problem at RTD; it's consummating the act that seems to elude the board. Last spring, when the state legislature voted to send the Guide the Ride referendum to the voters, one little-noted provision of the bill amended the requirement that two-thirds of the RTD board must approve any future light-rail construction. If Guide the Ride passes, the major transit improvements in the plan can proceed on a simple majority of eight votes.

The measure was a prophetic piece of work, given how badly support for the plan has unraveled among the group that first brought it to the public. The days are long gone when two-thirds of the RTD board can agree on anything.

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