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.).

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.

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.

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.

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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