Road Warriors

Boon or boondoggle, Bill Owens's highway plan has to get past Douglas Bruce before it goes anywhere.

"There's something to be said for getting these projects done," says Dick Wadhams, the Owens aide who took a leave of absence to run the pro-TRANS campaign. "Even if the construction inflation and the cost of the bonds offset each other, money would still be saved because we're doing it faster. There will be an economy of scale."

Wadhams believes that the TRANS backers have learned their lesson from the collapse of Guide the Ride and other huge, overreaching transportation projects. "This is clearly not a tax increase, and the projects are quite specific and tangible," he says. "The referendum is not on whether to build these projects. It's on whether we're going to build them in 25 years or in twelve."

Owens has described the light-rail line as "complementary" to I-25 lane expansion and has suggested that it makes sense, in terms of traffic engineering and long-range planning, to embark on both at the same time. Even in tandem, though, the projects aren't exactly bargains. Expanding nineteen miles of I-25 could consume up to $600 million of the TRANS money. The total cost of the rail line has ballooned from $450 million to $874 million, to be paid through a combination of as-yet-uncommitted federal transit funds and future surpluses RTD wants to exempt from the TABOR requirements. Despite the daunting price tag, the linkage of the two proposals has enlisted support from a wide array of interests, from developers and large corporate employers to environmentalists hungry for more rail.

Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).
Brett Amole
Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).


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By contrast, the opposition has been so grassroots as to be almost underground. A few conservatives, including maverick RTD boardmember Dick Sargent, have groused about the dubious projected ridership figures of the rail line; some pro-rail advocates have expressed fears that the line's enormous cost will cannibalize any hope of building effective rapid transit elsewhere in the metro area for decades to come. But aside from Douglas Bruce's volleys, TRANS has chugged along virtually unchallenged.

"The governor is getting a pass on this one," says Mike Feeley. "Where's Jon Caldara?"

Caldara, the former RTD board chairman who led under-funded but devastating campaigns to defeat Guide the Ride in 1997 and Referendum B last year, has been relegated to the sidelines by his duties as director of the Independence Institute, the Golden-based conservative think tank. Although the institute has issued its own white paper critical of Owens's highway plan and pushing revenue-generating toll lanes rather than light rail, Caldara can't plunge directly into the fray without jeopardizing the group's nonprofit tax status (although Bruce can, and did, borrow Caldara's winning anti-Referendum B slogan). Still, he expresses astonishment at the strange coalition that's rallied around the two proposals.

"To see the governor pushing light rail is a very odd thing," Caldara says. "I don't think there's a single person in his administration who wants to see light rail down that corridor, but they're willing to pay that as a political ransom to get TRANS."

Noting that Owens recently described the projects as fitting "hand in glove," he adds, "When I hear 'hand in glove,' my next thought is: 'Bend over.'"

Caldara says he's "jonesing" to campaign actively against the rail line. (Last week he hosted a debate on the issue that was shunned by leading rail advocates.) He wonders if Owens's support for rail may actually hurt his highway proposal, given RTD's recent history of misfired campaigns, public squabbling and service glitches. And he envisions a "nightmare" scenario in which rural voters, unimpressed with the supposed statewide benefits of the highway package, defeat TRANS while RTD's rail line squeaks to victory in Denver.

"I'm not convinced that TRANS is going to pass," Caldara says. "If I had to bet, I'd say that the RTD thing is going to kill TRANS. The governor has made a very bad calculation. What he doesn't realize is that anyone who goes to bed with RTD is going to wake up with a social disease."

In the absence of other prominent naysayers, Douglas Bruce has become the undisputed leader of the opposition to Referendum A, the guy that the dailies' op/ed people invite to write the "con" piece. But Bruce insists he's not alone in his fight. While some environmental groups may have been co-opted by Owens's support for the rail package, others, including the Sierra Club, have come out against TRANS, arguing that it merely promotes more irresponsible sprawl and one-person-per-car traffic woes.

"There's a lot of concern among environmentalists," says Bruce. "Although we don't agree on all the reasons to oppose it, we share a distaste for subsidies -- particularly subsidies for developers and big handouts of corporate welfare for bond dealers and highway contractors. These are the unholy three that are pushing this issue."

Mark Itkonen of Citizens for Balanced Transportation, who's been distributing anti-TRANS fliers in conjunction with Bruce, agrees. "The governor is being opportunistic," he says. "He sees that people want light rail, and he thinks he can piggyback his highway project on it." Since Bruce is not campaigning against the rail measure, he adds, "we really have no disagreement."

Yet there's no question that Bruce has done most of the heavy lifting in the opposition campaign. In fact, he's largely responsible for forcing a public vote on the issue. Last spring, after passage of the bill authorizing the borrowing scheme, Bruce and a trio of Democratic legislators went to court, arguing that the state couldn't go into debt without a vote of the people. Despite some quibbling over the definition of "debt," the Colorado Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor.

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