One-Track Minds

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

Have a Little Confidence
In the grim, sometimes goofy race for seven seats on the Regional Transportation District's board of directors, the key word is "confidence."

At candidate forums and fundraisers, the contenders say that the people need confidence in their elected leaders. They argue that Guide the Ride, last year's ambitious proposal to fund $6 billion in rapid transit through a sales-tax hike, was thoroughly rejected at the polls because voters lack confidence in the current RTD board. What is needed, they insist, is a coherent transit plan to deal with metro Denver's unchecked growth and obscene traffic, a plan the beleaguered commuter can embrace with confidence.

This confidence game has attracted an unusual number of players. In past years RTD elections have been low-key affairs; the nonpartisan races for the fifteen-member board tend to draw a limited number of cranks, transit activists and semi-retired politicos--the kind of folks who aren't deterred by the job's low pay ($3,000 a year), pathetic perks (an occasional trip to Vegas or Phoenix to attend a transit conference) and constrained authority (the power to declare a new Park-n-Ride). But this year, as pervasive congestion tightens on the metro area like a vise and various business and government interests yelp with pain, a total of eighteen candidates are vying for seven seats, and only four of those are incumbents. (A fifth incumbent, Gloria Holliday, is running unopposed in her district.)

The decision of several boardmembers not to seek re-election--including Jon Caldara, who led the campaign against Guide the Ride--has left challengers with a meager pool of incumbents to vilify, resulting in some ugly gang-tackling. For example, incumbent Ben Klein, who was the board chairman during the Guide the Ride debacle, is running on his record; but his three opponents are also running on Klein's record. At a recent debate sponsored by the Metro Mayors Caucus, candidates Rick Garcia and Eric Sahl both ripped into Klein for initially supporting Guide the Ride and then actively opposing Transit '97, the coalition that was financing the campaign ("Divide the Ride," October 23, 1997).

Garcia, a state personnel official who was active in the Guide the Ride campaign, blamed Klein for the failure of the initiative: "There was a complete, total lack of confidence in the current board...[Klein] worked behind the scenes to ensure it didn't pass." For his part, attorney Sahl blasted the 71-year-old incumbent as "unfit to hold public office" and brought up Klein's 1970s federal conviction for tax evasion.

Klein responded with acerbic attacks on "fat cats" in general and Garcia in particular, whom he portrayed as an agent of Transit '97 and its successor, Metro Transit!, a group of business and environmental interests that is backing candidates for all seven contested RTD seats. "I'm glad my opponent, Mr. Garcia, who was the coordinator of Guide the Ride, is now criticizing [that] very program," he shot back. "It's very clear to me, and I cast the deciding vote that sent this to the people, that it was not marketed correctly...The fat cats trying to buy RTD with $25,000 contributions, they wanted to get their friends the contracts. That's why it went down."

To some extent, this year's RTD elections are about payback. Several of the challengers were hardcore supporters of Guide the Ride; they blame the current board, with its well-known penchant for infighting, treachery and outright buffoonery, for sabotaging the tax package. But while the various factions wrangle over who was responsible for the proposal's abysmal defeat, the more pressing issues of the current race have barely been discussed. Indeed, given that rampant and poorly managed growth is the mother of all issues in Colorado this election season, then the most critical decision facing Denver's voters--whether RTD can, or should, devote its resources to building one promising but expensive rapid-transit line rather than pursuing various schemes for a metro-wide system costing billions of dollars--isn't even on the ballot.

Not directly, anyway.
Getting Real About Rail
Although polls indicate that a healthy majority of metro residents are in favor of building more light rail, efforts to raise taxes to pay for such projects have consistently been defeated in the voting booth. In 1980 a proposal to build a 77-mile, metro-wide light-rail system was barely turned down; by comparison, last year's lumbering Guide the Ride package was a virtual train wreck, with 58 percent of the turnout voting against it, despite a massive advertising blitz by supporters.

What light rail RTD has managed to get on track has been done without benefit of a popular vote. The initial downtown line, from South Broadway to Five Points, was cobbled together from the agency's own surplus tax revenues. Although that route was originally promoted as a "demonstration line," one that riders would have a chance to try out before voting on a larger system, in 1994 the RTD board voted to approve an 8.7-mile extension of that line down Santa Fe Drive to Littleton--seven months before the downtown line even opened. The Littleton line, known as the Southwest Corridor, is now being constructed with the aid of $120 million in federal transit funds and is scheduled to open in July 2000.

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."

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.

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."

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.

"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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