One-Track Minds

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

In the wake of the Guide the Ride defeat, the light-rail enthusiasts on the board have been scrambling to figure out how to keep their plans for additional rail projects alive. Last spring the agency developed a complex scenario that would allow it to embark on light-rail corridors to the southeast and west, as well as a commuter rail line to DIA, by issuing bonds and drawing on federal, state and local funding sources. Since that time, though, the intense, behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the board has focused attention on the Southeast Corridor project--a rail line down I-25, from the existing South Broadway terminus to Lincoln Avenue in Douglas County, with a spur along I-225 to Parker Road.

One reason for the shift has been the ascendancy of Caldara, the rail-bashing Boulderite who became the board's chairman last January. Over the summer Caldara outraged the rail faction by declaring that any further design work on the east and west corridors would require a two-thirds majority vote of the board. His ruling, based on a questionable interpretation of a state statute that is now the subject of two lawsuits (one filed by the cities of Denver and Lakewood, the other by Ben Klein), effectively stalled $16 million worth of engineering and environmental impact studies until a Denver judge can rule on the meaning of the statute.

Caldara, who is reportedly going to head the arch-conservative Independence Institute think tank when his term ends this year, remains a diehard skeptic of any rail project. "We're talking about building a new rail corridor, and we still haven't finished the Southwest Corridor, which is going to be an absolute dog," he complains. But if rail has a chance of working anywhere, he concedes, then the southeast line holds the most promise.

That's what boardmember Jack McCroskey has been arguing for years. The man who spearheaded the creation of the original downtown line, McCroskey, like his sometime-nemesis Klein, was a wild card in the Guide the Ride campaign; although he voted to put the proposal on the ballot, he subsequently argued strenuously against it, reasoning that it made more sense to take an "incremental approach" to light rail rather than seek a whopping tax hike. Six weeks ago, he finally persuaded a narrow majority of his colleagues to vote in favor of making the southeast line its top priority ahead of any other proposed rail project--a vote that could put work on the east and west corridors in deep freeze for several years.

The 8-7 decision came after months of relentless lobbying and considerable horse-trading on McCroskey's part. Klein, for example, admits that he didn't bring his crucial swing vote to the McCroskey camp until the southeast boosters agreed to include in the package a 1.7-mile spur through the Central Platte Valley--linking the existing downtown line to Elitch's, the Pepsi Center and other attractions. But McCroskey insists that focusing on the most congested corridor, rather than a metro-wide plan, only makes sense.

"We tried to build overall for years and years, and it's always been defeated," he says. "I feel confident that it would go down again. So you have to do it incrementally, the most pressing piece at a time."

The twenty-mile, $450 million project represents the biggest gamble in the history of RTD. Funding is by no means certain, and the engineering problems involved in erecting a rail line in the severely cramped right-of-way of an overworked six-lane freeway are formidable. But McCroskey insists that the biggest obstacles to building the line are political--specifically, the impact of this fall's elections on mass-transit planning for the Front Range.

Clearly, both the governor's race and key congressional elections could affect RTD's ability to tap into state and federal funds for the project. Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Owens has never been a big fan of rail--"I love light rail as a concept but hate it in practicality. It never works," he told Westword in 1992--and his own position paper on transportation suggests that additional highway lanes, along with some form of a fixed-guideway bus system, may be a better solution for I-25. And among the leading congressional candidates is Tom Tancredo--Caldara crony, Independence Institute president and longtime rail critic.

But McCroskey says he's less worried about Owens and Tancredo, who he believes will provide limited support for the project, than he is about the sea change that's coming to the RTD board. McCroskey himself is not up for re-election for two more years, and with Caldara and his staunchest ally, Dan Gallegos, both stepping down, the anti-rail wing of the board could be all but neutralized. But if the candidates backed by Metro Transit! sweep into office, McCroskey says, then it's entirely possible that the board will once again be pursuing the chimera of a metro-wide system fueled by a juicy tax hike--and jeopardizing the fragile coalition that's now rallied behind the southeast line.

"The impediment I see is this chamber of commerce group, Metro Transit!," McCroskey says. "The people who love light rail to death are a bigger danger than the ones who hate it. They still haven't realized that with the defeat of Guide the Ride, we've entered a new world."

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