One-Track Minds

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

Most of the candidates running for RTD seats say they support the southeast line and aren't in favor of seeking additional tax increases--at least, not for the next few years. But many of them are also in favor of reviving work on other rail lines as soon as possible, using funds McCroskey would rather invest in the southeast line, and that distresses the so-called father of Denver's light rail.

"They may succeed in throwing away ten or twenty million dollars on studying lines that aren't going to get built," McCroskey says. "If the elected board voted tomorrow fifteen to zip to put light rail everywhere, they might as well be voting that it shall not snow in February. It won't come to pass."

You, Too, Can Win Ben Klein's Money
One reason RTD has been such an anomaly among public agencies, a hotbed of very public divisiveness and sudden shifts in direction, is that the elections to its board of directors are nonpartisan and--in past years--frequently uncontested. All it takes is 250 signatures on a petition and a few bucks for lawn signs, and a candidate is in business. Legislators have tried on several occasions, to no avail, to replace the elected board with an appointed one, or at least to require some sort of declaration of party affiliation.

Yet the same free-wheeling structure that has made RTD such a startling--and, at times, horrific--example of democracy in action also allows for special-interest groups to field their own slate of candidates without too much trouble. A few years ago the Independence Institute was accused of stacking the board races with anti-rail ideologues; this year, though, the field is crowded with pro-rail types backed by Metro Transit!, whose contributor list reads like a who's who of Front Range developers, real-estate interests and mega-corporations (US West, Coors, Fuller and Company, Public Service, Inverness, etc.).

It's significant that the one incumbent endorsed by Metro Transit! is Robert Ore, a former state legislator who was appointed to the board last spring to fill a seat vacated by the death of Russ Tarvin. Ore had no role in the Guide the Ride disaster and has proven to be a team player with those on the board pushing for metro-wide rapid transit.

Like Ore, the rest of the Metro Transit!-endorsed candidates all have a background in local or state government. They include Klein opponent Garcia, who works for the Colorado Department of Personnel (and served as a "grassroots co-chair" in the Guide the Ride campaign); Dave Rose, a former Brighton mayor; Wallace Pulliam, who serves on the Jefferson County Planning Commission; Bob Briggs, a former Adams County commissioner; Richard McLean, a retired Boulder judge; and former RTD boardmember Stephen Millard. By the end of September, Metro Transit! had contributed $500 to each of their campaigns--not enough for TV face time, but a substantial amount by the standards of RTD races, with presumably more to come out of the group's anticipated $25,000 war chest--and offered two sessions of "candidate training" as well.

Klein, who had to loan his own campaign $1,500 to push its contributions into four figures, characterizes the Metro Transit! slate as a bunch of bland bureaucrats who, if elected, can be expected to march in lockstep. "The endorsed candidates are clones of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce," he says. "Since when is the chamber representing the best interests of the working people and the taxpayers? They're only interested in promoting more business for their membership. It's just a bigoted group of rich people who want to control everything."

Attorney Howard Gelt, the chairman of Metro Transit!, denies that the endorsed candidates have any common agenda other than restoring "civility and respect" to the board. Gelt was also a key player in Transit '97, the backers of the Guide the Ride campaign--and a favorite target of Klein's, since Gelt's law firm, Sherman & Howard, had worked closely with RTD on bond issues and could have gained millions if the initiative passed. But Gelt says the basic issue at stake is not resurrecting Guide the Ride but creating a less dysfunctional board.

"I can't respond to what Mr. Klein thinks," Gelt says. "I can say that we have not endorsed Mr. Klein. We feel that Mr. Garcia brings a better sense of balance and perspective to the process. We're not just underwriting or endorsing a particular plan or anything like that. We're trying to get some people elected who we think represent a good balance."

Garcia says he isn't anybody's clone. "I am not a Denver Chamber member," he says. "My views on transportation and the need for new governance on the RTD board are my own and were in place long before Metro Transit! endorsed me."

Garcia adds that his role in the Guide the Ride campaign was "to engage the small business community, including members of the minority community. Frankly, I learned more during that campaign about the power and influence that the RTD board has than I ever wanted to. I thought we could do a lot better in my district than Ben Klein."

Seeking his third term on the board, Klein is still running against Guide the Ride, portraying his opponents as tax-happy. His campaign literature promises "light rail without more taxes" and claims he "led the fight for the recently approved light rail to be built on I-25." He boasts of being board chairman at the time RTD received full federal funding for the Southwest Corridor--a project he originally opposed.

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