Spinning Their Wheels

A guide to surviving the light-rail info war

First, a pop quiz. The Guide the Ride transit plan, which metro-area voters are being asked to fund with a sales-tax increase, is:

a) A terrific deal that, for mere pennies per day, will ease traffic congestion and pollution in major traffic corridors and provide commuters with badly needed alternatives to auto gridlock, including sleek electric trolleys and beefed-up bus service.

b) A brazen boondoggle that will line the pockets of a few bond underwriters, engineering firms and construction companies and pump billions into the coffers of an already bloated transit agency while doing virtually nothing to address the area's critical traffic problems.

c) A huge gamble on dubious technology, primarily light rail, packaged in a plan that's fraught with unknowns.

d) Search me. I just moved here from California. Hey, is there another way to get from Broomfield to Park Meadows without driving that damn I-25?

Depending on which faction's propaganda you've been reading lately, your answer could be a, b or c. (If you answered d, then Denver's gridlock is all your fault. Prepare to have the kiwi-colored crap beaten out of you by road-raging natives during the next "curiosity slowdown" at the I-25/I-225 interchange.)

The debate over Guide the Ride has become a war of slippery numbers and half-baked data. Not since Denver International Airport was a gleam in Federico Pena's eye has a local referendum generated so many sharply conflicting claims about the cost, benefits and scope of the project involved. The light-rail boosters and their critics have each relied on figures found in the Regional Transportation District's analyses of the project to support their claims, but those figures have been recalculated repeatedly by the agency's staff at the instruction of warring RTD boardmembers.

In an effort to cut through the hype and confusion, Westword presents a guide to the perplexed, a way to navigate the spin and counterspin of the big wheels trying to sway your vote on Referendum 4A:

1. What is Guide the Ride, anyway?

The Spin: A comprehensive plan, developed with extensive community involvement, to build and maintain a huge package of metro-wide transit projects over the next two decades.

The Counterspin: A redevelopment scheme posing as a vital public-works project--"DIA on wheels."

The Facts: Guide the Ride is actually RTD's third attempt to persuade voters to buy into a major rapid-transit project. In 1973 the agency managed to gain approval of a half-cent sales-tax increase by promising to deliver improved services, including a billion-dollar system of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)--800 space-age, driverless carriages hurtling commuters all over the metro area on nearly a hundred miles of track. Federal assistance for the project never arrived; the tax, however, remained.

In 1980 RTD returned to the voters, seeking another tax hike to fund a 73-mile light-rail system that would link downtown to the suburbs and Stapleton International Airport. Not only was the proposal defeated, but voters also approved an initiative to replace RTD's appointed board of directors with an elected board.

Light rail wasn't a big priority for the elected board--not at first. Indeed, studies done for the agency in the early 1980s indicated that increased bus service made much better sense for Denver transit riders than capital-intensive rail projects. But a 1989 Colorado Supreme Court decision gave RTD an unexpected windfall in "use taxes"--enough to finance a modest rail demonstration line. Since that time, the agency has built 5.3 miles of not-so-rapid transit from South Broadway to Five Points and has started building the Southwest Corridor, an 8.7-mile extension of the line to Littleton, all without having to seek voter approval.

Unable to finance the rest of the system without a substantial hike in local taxes, last spring the board endorsed an ambitious proposal to build an additional 112 miles of transit projects--light rail, commuter rail or high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes--in eight major traffic corridors. Although Guide the Ride was unveiled after a series of showy town meetings, it incorporated several elements that had been on the drawing boards at RTD for years. The public-participation process did, however, hike the cost of the total package substantially, since a grab bag of transit improvements was added to appease various neighborhoods.

The plan as adopted would build light-rail lines from downtown to the southeast (including areas of Douglas County not yet in RTD's tax district), southwest (the Littleton line) and west, as well as a commuter rail line (a diesel passenger train, built primarily on existing tracks) from Golden through Arvada and Union Station to Denver International Airport. Three other corridors--U.S. 36 to Boulder, I-225 and north I-25--are slated to receive cash for major transit construction, but studies have not yet been done to determine what form of transit will be used.

In addition, the plan would add small circulator buses, more Park-and-Ride lots and more buses on existing routes to improve suburb-to-suburb service and link outlying areas to the major transit corridors.

2. Who's behind it?

The Spin: A broad-based coalition of civic and business leaders, environmental groups and grassroots organizations.

The Counterspin: Private interests that could profit tremendously if the project is built.

The Facts: RTD is prohibited from using public funds to push for the tax hike, but backers of the project have formed a campaign organization, Transit '97, to aggressively promote the cause. Spearheaded by Lakewood mayor Linda Morton, RTD boardmember Bob Tonsing and heavy hitters from the Downtown Denver Partnership and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the group has obtained a staggering variety of endorsements for Guide the Ride from elected officials (including Roy Romer, Wellington Webb and the Denver City Council), pro-transit greens (Sierra Club, Colorado Environmental Coalition), cheerleading media outlets (the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal) and other interested parties (Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, the Gray Panthers, etc.).

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