Spinning Their Wheels

A guide to surviving the light-rail info war

Figure, too, that the hidden costs of the project will fall much more heavily on some shoulders than on others. For example, RTD's revenue projections for Guide the Ride include a 15 percent fare increase every three years; if the project runs into financial trouble, the agency could be faced with the prospect of either cutting back services or additional fare hikes. Thus, those who rely on public transit the most--including the groups of low-income and disabled riders that have eagerly endorsed the project--could end up paying disproportionately more of the cost.

5. What will it do for traffic?

The Spin: Take 51,000 cars off the road each day by 2020.
The Counterspin: Slightly increase Denver's pathetic rate of transit ridership while doing virtually nothing to relieve congestion.

The Facts: Frustration with clogged freeways has generated considerable popular support for Guide the Ride, but even its staunchest backers concede that the plan will not be a "solution" to Denver's traffic problems. Instead, they argue that people ought to have the choice of riding rapid transit to work--even though studies indicate that the vast majority of commuters will stick to their automobiles.

RTD's own analysis shows that mass transit currently accounts for only about 2 percent of all vehicular trips in the metro area; if Guide the Ride passes, RTD's market share will increase to 3 percent by 2020. That minimal gain, opponents contend, isn't worth the enormous cost involved.

Backers say that light rail isn't supposed to take the place of the family car--or cars, since Denver averages less than 1.1 person per automobile--for trips to the grocery store and the like. If one focuses on home-to-work trips in the major corridors during peak travel times, the picture gets much rosier: an increase in the percentage of all rush-hour travelers using transit in the major traffic corridors from 11 percent in 1995 to 27 percent in 2020. While a reduction in 51,000 auto trips per weekday may not seem like much in the total scheme of congestion (divide that number by seven corridors and halve it to get a rough idea of the effect on morning rush hour in a given traffic jam), it still amounts to some relief at peak travel times.

"What we're trying to do is alleviate traffic where we need it the most--during rush hour," says DuBay of Transit '97.

DuBay argues that the system will meet its ridership projections because it offers a viable alternative to crawling down the freeway. "People will use it, because the traffic hasn't begun to get as bad as it's going to get," he cheerily predicts.

Yet for Guide the Ride to succeed, it will have to buck some dismal trends in transit ridership locally and nationally. RTD's ridership numbers have grown as the population has swelled, but its per capita ridership (including its share of work trips) is declining. Denver's existing light-rail system has attracted more new riders than expected, but most of its passengers are previous transit riders compelled to transfer from bus to train. In thirteen cities that embarked on rail projects in the 1980s, twelve have seen public transit's market share decline, and one has remained stable.

6. What will it do for the environment?

The Spin: Reduce air pollution by six tons of pollutants per day in 2020.
The Counterspin: Nothing, zero, zilch, nada.
The Facts: The greatest gains in Denver's air quality over the past two decades have been the result of more efficient cars and fuels. By comparison, Guide the Ride's impact will be negligible.

Consider that right now, 128 tons of the most pervasive pollutant, carbon monoxide, are generated daily in the southwest corridor, which is far from the most congested traffic corridor. Since the particular kind of transit has yet to be determined for three of the corridors, Guide the Ride's ability to reduce air pollution may be slightly more or less than projected, but the plan is expected to improve air quality by less than 1 percent in many categories of pollutants and actually increase some types of pollution in the operation of its diesel-powered commuter lines.

The larger question is why, if it does so little for pollution, the plan is being endorsed by various environmental groups. The answer has to do with ideology--the belief that commuters ought to have a choice not to pollute by riding an electric train, even if that choice isn't a popular one--and with the shimmering promise that Guide the Ride will be part of an overall strategy by metro-area planners to concentrate future growth along transit corridors. In a few decades, the argument goes, that strategy could have greater environmental benefits by encouraging more easily accessible pedestrian retail and business centers.

"We see it as a long-term investment that will help shape the growth in the metro area and reduce sprawl," says Lauren Martens of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the treasurer for Transit '97.

7. What's in it for the suburbs?

The Spin: Substantially improved transit service for local trips and work commutes.

The Counterspin: A fleecing of suburban taxpayers to build a hub-and-spoke rail system that primarily benefits downtown Denver business interests.

The Facts: Guide the Ride promises plenty of bells and whistles for the suburbs, including increased bus service and new minibuses and vans used as local circulators. But critics charge that the plan is a vague bit of "window dressing" and devotes only a fraction of the cash to truly suburban service, compared with the billions that will be spent on running trains to and from downtown and creating feeder routes and parking lots to get people to those trains.

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