One-Track Minds

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

The Tech Center, Greenwood Village and other business and government interests in the southeast area have already committed to ponying up $20 million over twelve years to develop a circulator bus system to move commuters from transit stations to their jobs in anticipation of a rail line along I-25. Thorn says a similar public-private transit proposal is in the works for South Colorado Boulevard, but he adds that a rail line serving the corridor would benefit commuters heading in the opposite direction, too.

"This is really important to downtown as well," says Thorn, who's also active in the Downtown Denver Partnership. "If we can't get people downtown at rush hour, we're going to start losing companies and tenants."

Even with growing support from the business community, financing rail along I-25 all the way to Douglas County--more than double the length of the Littleton line--will be no easy matter. Considerable cash has already been spent on the groundwork, a million-dollar Major Investment Study (MIS) completed last year and a $20 million environmental impact study, conducted by the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is scheduled for completion late next year. But that's scant down payment on a system that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

McCroskey argues that the first phase of the line, the link between downtown and South Broadway, is already in place and that the rest can be financed without a tax hike through a combination of RTD, state and federal funds. The state has already earmarked close to $90 million for the project, and the feds may be good for at least an equal amount--although the first dribble of federal funding, tucked into the budget package approved last week, amounts to only $500,000. That leaves, by McCroskey's estimates, about $250 million from RTD itself, but light rail's papa insists that sum can be raised in much the same way the agency built the downtown line--by going to the bond market.

Unlike state government operations, RTD isn't prohibited from going into debt to finance capital construction. The agency also managed to get "de-Bruced," which means it isn't required to refund to the taxpayers its surplus sales-tax revenues, which have been soaring with the explosion of metro growth. McCroskey figures the agency can use some of the surplus, roughly $15 million a year initially, to arrange financing of the project.

"To the state, a million is a million," he explains. "But to us, a million dollars is thirteen million dollars we can put to work right now."

But even if McCroskey can persuade a majority of his colleagues to commit to taking such a plunge into long-term debt--which could further weaken the prospects of building any other transit corridors in the next decade or two--his pet project will still have to weather attacks about its overall cost, feasibility and usefulness.

For months Caldara has complained that the MIS analysis of the Southeast Corridor, which was prepared for CDOT by the consulting engineering firm of Carter & Burgess, was skewed in favor of light rail. (The CDOT planner in charge of the MIS, Robert Sakaguchi, has since gone to work for Carter & Burgess on the environmental impact study.) One promising rapid-transit alternative, the addition of special bus/HOV lanes, was rejected because of a key assumption that the lanes would require a total of 62 feet of right-of-way, a figure that some highway planners regard as excessive.

"We were always told that they would have to knock down hundreds of homes to expand I-25, and that turned out to be an absolute lie," Caldara fumes. "From what I understand, at the very least, there's room for four more lanes plus rapid transit. Basically, they lied because they want to push rail."

Caldara is still stumping for a reconsideration of other approaches to the I-25 logjam. "My guess is that the political winds will push it to light rail, but I will make one last-ditch effort to show people what guided bus systems are and why they might work better in that corridor," he vows. "I'm not going to support anything going down that corridor unless they make lane improvements at the same time."

But in recent months, Caldara's energies have been focused on leading the fight against Referendum B, the proposal to allow the state to keep $1 billion in tax surpluses over the next five years to finance highway and school projects, and his ability to confound the pro-rail camp certainly won't be helped by his departure from the board. Not surprisingly, the boosters of the southeast line say that reopening a debate about expanding the highway or turning to other technologies is a waste of time.

"You can't add enough lanes on I-25 to make a difference," contends Thorn, "and the notion of a guided busway is completely unproven in any American city."

State and federal highway planners readily acknowledge that light rail alone won't do much to unsnarl the long, ugly drive from downtown to the sprawling southeastern suburbs. They're now looking at developing "flex lanes"--not continuous traffic lanes, but inside shoulders that could be used as traffic lanes during peak hours--that could extend over most, if not all, of the route. They also say that the MIS estimate of $57 million in highway renovation costs is much too low; the latest estimates of what the total package will cost have jumped from $510 million to close to $800 million, thanks largely to the bill for fixing interchanges, drainage and other aspects of a forty-year-old freeway that's strained to capacity.

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