Spinning Their Wheels

A guide to surviving the light-rail info war

A gaggle of suburban mayors and city councils has enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, hoping it will assist their own development plans. Yet concern over whether GTR pushes LoDo at the expense of the suburbs (watch for Union Station to become the hub of the universe if the plan passes) is one reason officials in Boulder, Adams County, Jefferson County and otheroutlying areas have been asking what's in it for them.

The picture in the northern suburbs is particularly uncertain, since those communities could end up with some light rail in addition to the existing HOV lanes on I-25--a situation not unlike the one emerging in the Southwest Corridor, where HOV lanes on Santa Fe will adjoin a light-rail line that's also in the plan, despite the fact that federal funding has already been promised for the southwest rail line.

"RTD stands for the Redundantly Taxed District," quips boardmember Caldara, whose district includes Boulder. "How can I tell people to vote for something that I can't describe?"

Caldara jokes that RTD also stands for "Road to Denver"--that the agency continues to push the hub-and-spoke concept even though the data shows that most trips are suburb-to-suburb rather than in and out of the central business district. Although RTD claims to carry a quarter of all home-to-work trips to downtown, its share of all work trips in the region is less than 4 percent. Adding more express buses to RTD's much-spurned suburban service isn't likely to solve the growing problem of folks living at one edge of the subdivision sprawl and commuting to the other.

8. How convenient will it be?

The Spin: Very. Will cut travel times in half in some major corridors.
The Counterspin: Too many stops + too many transfers = too much hassle.
The Facts: In theory, RTD's light-rail trains have the horses to go 55 miles per hour. In practice, they average less than 15 miles per hour. But that's because the existing line travels the most congested, traffic-light-infested area of the planned system. The agency estimates that in the year 2020, a light-rail commute from Lincoln Avenue in Douglas County to the 16th Street Mall downtown will take 35 minutes, compared to 66 minutes by automobile.

That's one argument for rapid transit along south I-25, at least; the numbers for rail travel from Littleton to downtown are also impressive. But along routes that involve more surface streets and frequent stops, light rail's travel-time advantage diminishes to the point where it's hardly a factor; will people really give up the convenience of their cars to save less than ten minutes in traffic?

The still-unsettled mix of technologies in the plan could also discourage riders by multiplying the number of transfers required to complete a trip. Taking transit to DIA is already a complicated procedure; imagine hauling your bags (by car or bus) to a light-rail station in Littleton, boarding the train, weaving through the 'burbs and downtown--and then transferring to a diesel train to complete the journey. Lack of convenience and flexibility is one of the primary reasons Americans shun public transit, and it seems unlikely that Guide the Ride will woo most Denver commuters, who prefer a lot of both.

9. Has this worked anywhere else?

The Spin: Look at St. Louis.
The Counterspin: Look at Portland.
The Facts: Experts say that fixed-guideway transit systems tend to work best in cities with much higher population densities than Denver's, such as the aging but heavily used subways in New York and the BART system in San Francisco. Most of the cities that have jumped on the light-rail bandwagon in the past two decades have seen their systems cost far more to build and operate than projected, while ridership figures have failed to meet expectations.

St. Louis is often touted as a light-rail success story; its fifteen-mile line carries more passengers than predicted and is being expanded into communities across the Mississippi.

But St. Louis's experience is unique in many ways. The current line was financed largely through federal funds and was able to take advantage of an existing rail-and-tunnel infrastructure that allows it to move speedily, away from surface traffic.

Portland may provide a better indicator of how light rail fares in cities like Denver. At first glance, its fifteen-mile line between the eastern suburbs and downtown looks like a success, too; it averages close to 30,000 passengers a day, has spurred development along the line, and a western extension is scheduled to open next year. But local critics argue that commuters are worse off because express bus service along the corridor was "cannibalized" to add feeder buses that direct people onto the train--which averages only nineteen miles per hour and makes too many stops to offer an efficient commute. And even when operating at capacity during rush hour, the train has failed to have any significant impact on traffic congestion. Voters have turned down two efforts to add north-south routes to the line.

"They never state any more that this is congestion relief," says John Charles, environmental policy director at Portland's Cascade Policy Institute. "They know it's not true."

Charles says he was a light-rail supporter until he became a regular rider on the line and discovered that "actually commuting by rail is not nearly as nice as it seems when you're just thinking about it." He now takes an express bus to work, operated by another transit agency, and gets downtown ahead of the train.

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