One-Track Minds

Rail-happy RTD candidates want to solve Denver's traffic nightmare. Are they just spinning their wheels?

Have a Little Confidence
In the grim, sometimes goofy race for seven seats on the Regional Transportation District's board of directors, the key word is "confidence."

At candidate forums and fundraisers, the contenders say that the people need confidence in their elected leaders. They argue that Guide the Ride, last year's ambitious proposal to fund $6 billion in rapid transit through a sales-tax hike, was thoroughly rejected at the polls because voters lack confidence in the current RTD board. What is needed, they insist, is a coherent transit plan to deal with metro Denver's unchecked growth and obscene traffic, a plan the beleaguered commuter can embrace with confidence.

This confidence game has attracted an unusual number of players. In past years RTD elections have been low-key affairs; the nonpartisan races for the fifteen-member board tend to draw a limited number of cranks, transit activists and semi-retired politicos--the kind of folks who aren't deterred by the job's low pay ($3,000 a year), pathetic perks (an occasional trip to Vegas or Phoenix to attend a transit conference) and constrained authority (the power to declare a new Park-n-Ride). But this year, as pervasive congestion tightens on the metro area like a vise and various business and government interests yelp with pain, a total of eighteen candidates are vying for seven seats, and only four of those are incumbents. (A fifth incumbent, Gloria Holliday, is running unopposed in her district.)

The decision of several boardmembers not to seek re-election--including Jon Caldara, who led the campaign against Guide the Ride--has left challengers with a meager pool of incumbents to vilify, resulting in some ugly gang-tackling. For example, incumbent Ben Klein, who was the board chairman during the Guide the Ride debacle, is running on his record; but his three opponents are also running on Klein's record. At a recent debate sponsored by the Metro Mayors Caucus, candidates Rick Garcia and Eric Sahl both ripped into Klein for initially supporting Guide the Ride and then actively opposing Transit '97, the coalition that was financing the campaign ("Divide the Ride," October 23, 1997).

Garcia, a state personnel official who was active in the Guide the Ride campaign, blamed Klein for the failure of the initiative: "There was a complete, total lack of confidence in the current board...[Klein] worked behind the scenes to ensure it didn't pass." For his part, attorney Sahl blasted the 71-year-old incumbent as "unfit to hold public office" and brought up Klein's 1970s federal conviction for tax evasion.

Klein responded with acerbic attacks on "fat cats" in general and Garcia in particular, whom he portrayed as an agent of Transit '97 and its successor, Metro Transit!, a group of business and environmental interests that is backing candidates for all seven contested RTD seats. "I'm glad my opponent, Mr. Garcia, who was the coordinator of Guide the Ride, is now criticizing [that] very program," he shot back. "It's very clear to me, and I cast the deciding vote that sent this to the people, that it was not marketed correctly...The fat cats trying to buy RTD with $25,000 contributions, they wanted to get their friends the contracts. That's why it went down."

To some extent, this year's RTD elections are about payback. Several of the challengers were hardcore supporters of Guide the Ride; they blame the current board, with its well-known penchant for infighting, treachery and outright buffoonery, for sabotaging the tax package. But while the various factions wrangle over who was responsible for the proposal's abysmal defeat, the more pressing issues of the current race have barely been discussed. Indeed, given that rampant and poorly managed growth is the mother of all issues in Colorado this election season, then the most critical decision facing Denver's voters--whether RTD can, or should, devote its resources to building one promising but expensive rapid-transit line rather than pursuing various schemes for a metro-wide system costing billions of dollars--isn't even on the ballot.

Not directly, anyway.
Getting Real About Rail
Although polls indicate that a healthy majority of metro residents are in favor of building more light rail, efforts to raise taxes to pay for such projects have consistently been defeated in the voting booth. In 1980 a proposal to build a 77-mile, metro-wide light-rail system was barely turned down; by comparison, last year's lumbering Guide the Ride package was a virtual train wreck, with 58 percent of the turnout voting against it, despite a massive advertising blitz by supporters.

What light rail RTD has managed to get on track has been done without benefit of a popular vote. The initial downtown line, from South Broadway to Five Points, was cobbled together from the agency's own surplus tax revenues. Although that route was originally promoted as a "demonstration line," one that riders would have a chance to try out before voting on a larger system, in 1994 the RTD board voted to approve an 8.7-mile extension of that line down Santa Fe Drive to Littleton--seven months before the downtown line even opened. The Littleton line, known as the Southwest Corridor, is now being constructed with the aid of $120 million in federal transit funds and is scheduled to open in July 2000.

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