Spinning Their Wheels

A guide to surviving the light-rail info war

However, it's also true that much of the funding for the $500,000 campaign has come from two types of donors: financial and engineering firms, construction companies and other concerns that will be vying for contracts with RTD to finance and build the new projects; and development interests that view light rail as an engine for urban renewal, real estate speculation and further growth. The biggest single contributors have tended to be employment centers such as Interlocken (which recently chipped in $25,000) and the Denver Tech Center. "They see transit as an urban-planning element," says Transit '97 spokesman Keith DuBay.

3. So what's it going to cost?

The Spin: $2.1 billion (in 1996 dollars) to build the system.
The Counterspin: $16 billion (in inflated dollars) to build, finance and operate the system through the year 2035.

The Facts: No figure connected with Guide the Ride has proven more elastic than its price tag. That's because the true cost to the taxpayers hinges on two murky variables: the dates when construction will be completed and when the bonds will be paid off.

Yes, the total cost of the new light-rail lines, land acquisition, new bus fleets and the rest of Guide the Ride is estimated at around $2.1 billion if purchased right now. (That's less than half the cost of DIA, enthusiasts point out.) But since the project isn't expected to be completed until the year 2015, adjust that figure for inflation: $3.5 billion. Add the cost of debt service (the long-term interest on a billion dollars in bonds turns out to be close to another billion dollars) and operating and maintenance costs, and you get the figure RTD has been tossing around as the total cost of the project through 2015: $5.9 billion.

The opposition has boosted the price to $16 billion (and, in a worst-case scenario, $21.3 billion) by calculating the cost of the project through 2035--the year RTD must pay off the billion-dollar debt it intends to take on to supplement the tax increase. RTD staffers have since done some more number-crunching and projected that the bonds might be paid off as early as 2020, making the project's cost to the taxpayer closer to $8 billion. But that figure was rejected by the agency's board at a special meeting last week; while paying off the bonds early shaves about $200 million off the total cost of the project and reduces the burden to the taxpayers--half the tax increase will be rolled back once the system is completed and the bonds paid off--it assumes that ongoing operational and maintenance costs after 2020 will be paid for from fare-box revenues and other sources.

Regardless of the time frame, expect Guide the Ride to operate at a loss. As with every other transit agency, it costs RTD far more to operate than it collects at the fare box; the difference is made up in taxes and other subsidies, and light rail won't change that. "Building it is one thing," says RTD boardmember and GTR opponent Jon Caldara. "Paying to operate it for the next fifty years is what's really going to suck us dry."

4. Yeah, but what's it going to cost me?

The Spin: Merely four pennies on every ten dollars you spend on items subject to sales tax; for most of us, less per year than a round-trip cab fare to DIA.

The Counterspin: As much as $21,000 for a typical family over the next four decades.

The Facts: Guide the Ride would hike RTD's sales-tax revenue from 0.6 percent to a full 1 percent--which is, depending on how you look at it, "a 67 percent tax increase," or "merely four pennies on every ten dollars you spend." That translates into $112 million in additional revenues next year, a sum that will rise steadily over the next two or three decades until construction is completed and the bonds are paid off, at which time the tax will be halved.

Opponents claim the tax will cost the typical family of four around $200 next year--a figure derived from dividing the total revenues by the metro-area population. They expect that to go up every year, too, until that beleaguered family is paying a whopping $1,200-a-year tax in 2035.

Boosters say that figure is terribly misleading. It assumes the bonds won't be paid off early, for one thing. Also, a significant percentage of sales-tax revenues comes from businesses or tourists. But RTD's own bean-counting on this issue is also flawed; the agency estimates the tax will cost the average household (of 2.47 people) $59 next year. Multiply that by the entire metro population, and it leaves more than half of the tax revenues to be collected from mysterious sources "other than the median taxpayer," as one staff memo puts it. RTD's board rejected the $59 figure last week on the grounds that it assumed businesses would pay a hefty percentage of the tax--and not pass that tax on to consumers in the form of increased prices.

Figure the actual tax to cost the average resident somewhere between $24 (RTD staff's estimate) and $50 (the critics' choice) next year. The long-haul projections are trickier, since there's no firm deadline for when the tax will be cut in half. "All RTD has to do is not finish something, and they can keep these surplus taxes rolling in," Caldara points out.

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