One-Track Minds

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

"The consensus is that the highway improvements have been much too conservatively estimated," says CDOT spokesman Dan Hopkins. "You're probably looking at something in the neighborhood of $250 million in highway work alone."

Jim Daves, regional director for the Federal Highway Administration, talks about "maximizing the utility of the existing right-of-way," since the freeway has little breathing room on either side. "Whenever we do build the train, let's make sure that we don't foreclose other options--or even worse, make the inevitable much more expensive," he says. "If we go in and build a light-rail system, we still must address upgrading I-25. There's probably some savings in doing them both at the same time. The problem is getting the funds together at the same time to do them both."

The rebuilding of I-25 represents the single most expensive project CDOT has ever undertaken, but it's not clear who would be in charge of the light-rail component. "Whatever funding falls into place, I think we'll probably manage the whole project," says CDOT's Hopkins. "There's clearly precedent for that."

Hopkins notes that CDOT also oversaw the construction of RTD's $250 million HOV project on North I-25 a few years ago. But since that time, the relationship between the two agencies has frayed considerably. Several RTD boardmembers were outraged when, after the failure of Guide the Ride, Governor Romer directed CDOT to proceed with a federal-funding application for rapid transit on I-25; by statute, RTD is the only authorized recipient of federal transit funds for the Front Range. The two currently have no agreement about how to implement a light-rail line on I-25, setting the stage for a possible turf war.

"Have you ever seen CDOT build light rail?" Klein asks. "I believe we can work out an agreement with them, but we're the only ones authorized to build it."

Other troubling questions about the plan include whether the addition of light-rail stations and parking lots will disrupt neighborhoods along the corridor; how the RTD elections (and the possible influx of those who, in McCroskey's words, "wind up smother-loving rail to death") will affect the board's ability to focus on the southeast line; and whether the ever-fractious transit agency can rally around the plan with something like a unified front--particularly in light of the fact that McCroskey himself was censured by his colleagues last week for his quarrelsome relationship with senior staff members.

The biggest question of all, though, is one that will take years to answer: Will it work?

Even Carter & Burgess's analysis, which chirpily concludes that light rail is the best of all possible alternatives for easing congestion on I-25, is hardly encouraging. The MIS estimates that in twenty years the line will have an average daily ridership of just under 30,000, but little more than half of that constitutes "new riders," people who wouldn't otherwise be on a bus. And while the line will certainly be able to haul people its entire length faster than they can get there on asphalt--35 minutes from Douglas County to downtown in 2020, compared to 66 minutes by highway--no one expects the vast majority of road warriors to give up the comforts of their personal chariot for the train. For all the hundreds of millions poured into light rail, those who stay in their cars can expect the service to reduce their own daily bout with congestion by two minutes or less.

The boosters say the figures aren't as dismal as they appear, that one should focus on the degree to which rail gets used during peak hours rather than its overall average use, since rush hour is the main problem. They say there's always the chance the line could end up carrying more people than projected, just as the measly current system has exceeded original expectations.

McCroskey isn't making any promises. "I don't know that it will work," he says. "I think it will. But if it doesn't, we sure as hell shouldn't be building it anywhere else. If it doesn't work there, where will it work?"

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