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One-Track Minds

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

In debates, his opponents have tried to zero in on his penchant for switching alliances; Sahl, for example, has complained that Klein "has flip-flopped on so many issues that other boardmembers tell me it's impossible to do a deal with him because you don't know how he will stand a week later." Their chief objection seems to be that Ben Klein is a politician who can't be bought, only leased.

Klein says he's merely trying to serve as an independent voice on the board. "Nobody owns me down there," he says. "The worst thing I have going against me is my previous reputation, when I had a problem 25 years ago." (In 1973 Klein, then a state legislator, was convicted of five counts of tax evasion and sentenced to five years in prison; pleading mental illness, he later had his sentence reduced to probation. In 1988 the Colorado Supreme Court reinstated his law license, ruling that Klein had "satisfied his burden of establishing his rehabilitation.")

While Klein dukes it out with Sahl, Garcia and businessman Bruce Benigno, his fellow incumbents Ron Nichol and Dick Rudden are facing their own challenges from Metro Transit!-backed candidates, and Ore is in a three-way race with rail critic Andy Padon and Carl Erickson, who favors McCroskey's incremental approach. The three other contested races are made up entirely of non-incumbents--a mixed bag that includes former boardmember Millard, retired bus driver Bruce Daly, perennial political candidate Dick Sargent and dark horse Herb White, who'd like to see the elected board replaced with "qualified businessmen."

The sharpest contrast may be found in the race in Caldara's district, which pits Richard McLean against Judd Ptak. McLean, who won Metro Transit!'s endorsement, is pushing for rail projects in places even Guide the Ride didn't envision, including a link between Boulder and Denver. Ptak, on the other hand, is a classic libertarian who argues that big rail projects are essentially a tool for taxpayer-subsidized development rather than an effective form of traffic relief.

Coming across as a slightly more earnest, less irreverent version of RTD's current chairman--Caldara without the repartee--Ptak can cite study after study that indicates transit agencies consistently underestimate the costs of light-rail projects and overestimate the ridership. He contends that the modest reductions in auto traffic claimed by light rail are more than offset by the additional development that accompanies it and that the technology simply isn't as convenient or cost-effective as investing similar dollars in less glamorous solutions such as HOV lanes and circulator buses. "People tell you that they'd rather take a train than a bus," he notes, "but when the bus is faster, they'll take the bus."

To Ptak, last year's repudiation of Guide the Ride demonstrates that his view, not the pro-rail crowd's, is more in step with that of the voters. "A lot of people are blaming the defeat of Guide the Ride on the board," he says. "That probably had something to do with it, but they never suspect that people might have actually looked at the proposal and said it wasn't any good."

But Ptak and his fellow rail skeptic, Padon, are lonely voices in the current RTD elections. "There was a deliberate push to get other candidates out of the race in Boulder," Ptak says. "The people who supported Guide the Ride had to make sure they had a pro-tax, pro-monopoly candidate who could beat Jon Caldara. They never contacted me; I don't think they took me seriously."

Ptak campaign coordinator Ron Bain also laments the dearth of grass-roots activists among the RTD candidates. He regards the well-heeled Metro Transit! campaign as "an almost blatant attempt to silence the opposition, to create a uniform board that will have no dissent at all."

Bain adds, "I see that as a loss to the community. They're not listening to the people. They're not listening to what was said with the vote last year."

If They Can't Make It Here,
They Can't Make It Anywhere
George Thorn can sum up in one sentence why Guide the Ride failed. "We didn't do a good job of presenting our case," he says, "and the metro area is suspicious of big mega-projects."

Although he co-chaired the fundraising campaign for last year's referendum with Howard Gelt, Thorn has since become a supporter of McCroskey's efforts to focus future light-rail planning on the Southeast Corridor. His company, Mile High Properties, is the developer of the Colorado Center, the enormous office-and-entertainment complex taking shape at Colorado Boulevard and I-25, and Thorn sees a crying need to do something about the growing traffic crunch along the freeway, which is projected to lengthen commute times by as much as fifty percent over the next two decades.

He's not alone, of course. Several big donors to the GTR campaign have embraced McCroskey's proposal to make the Southeast Corridor the top transit priority rather than continue to pursue a metro-wide package, arguing that it's the only reasonable alternative.

"What I see a lot of the light-rail advocates grappling with now is the hard reality of having to establish some priorities based on the available resources," says Ray Bullock, vice president of operations for the Denver Tech Center. "I can understand why that struggle exists, but at some point we have to deal with the cards we've been dealt. The Southeast Corridor is the most justifiable project right now; we'd like to see other corridors get built, too, but there have to be some realistic policies developed about what's achievable."

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