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Spinning Their Wheels

A guide to surviving the light-rail info war

10. Will it work here?

The Spin: Absolutely.
The Counterspin: No way.
The Bottom Line: It depends on what you expect the plan to accomplish. If the goal is to boost RTD's paltry ridership, spread the wealth among the project's contractors and goose further development along the metro area's already-frenzied traffic corridors, then Guide the Ride can deliver. If the aim is to have a significant impact on congestion and pollution in the most economically sensible manner possible, then look elsewhere.

True, certain elements of the plan, such as a rapid-transit line to the southeast, are seductive. And since RTD's projections are based on fairly conservative computer models--which don't take into account the possibility of federal funding, or that changes in gas prices and other auto expenses might make transit more attractive than it is now--it's even possible that the system could cost less and carry more people than indicated. But it's more likely to cost more and carry fewer people. Taken as a whole, Guide the Ride presents too many unknowns (what sort of transit are we buying for U.S. 36 to Boulder?), too many frills shaped by political considerations (a diesel train from Arvada to downtown?), and too few selling points to overcome the miserable track record for such systems.

Boosters admit the plan isn't perfect, but they insist that it's the best deal available, that defeating the proposal will only hike the cost of building essential transit in the future. The critics "don't have any alternatives," says Transit '97's DuBay. "If they do, they're more expensive for the average family, at least double the expense of transit."

Anti-rail crusader Caldara disagrees. His standard tirade against GTR includes a pitch for subsidies for carpooling, HOV and reversible lanes, jitneys and small buses, and other solutions that he claims could reduce congestion far more effectively at a fraction of the cost. Some of his proposals may sound unworkable or elitist--such as "congestion pricing," allowing single-occupancy vehicles to buy their way into underused carpool lanes--but they're being tested elsewhere and finding adherents.

"We don't need to build more highways," Caldara says. "The question is, how do you get more capacity out of the roadways we have now?"

Another alternative is to add major transit improvements gradually, drawing on internal funds and federal monies as they become available--a method that the agency is now using to build its Littleton rail line and that boardmember Jack McCroskey wants to implement for a line to the Denver Tech Center. Such a slow, difficult process won't suit the empire-builders at RTD--but then, it might beat forking over $6 billion to keep a few big wheels spinning.

--Prendergast

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