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According to FasTracks spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas, the mayors' input and public-opinion surveys have strongly favored getting the lines built as scheduled — even if that means going back to voters for another tax hike. Vidal, who's been attending the mayoral meetings on Hickenlooper's behalf, says a full buildout is in the best interest of all the municipalities involved.
"If all the lines are shortened, the portions in Denver will probably still get built," he says. "But people might have to drive in to catch the train, and that would increase congestion on the periphery. Also, to not have a connection from downtown to DIA would really be a problem for Denver."
The Independence Institute's O'Toole expresses amazement at the degree of confidence Denver voters continue to have in the concept of light rail, when the reality often falls short of expectations. "One of the things they promised was better bus service while they were building the trains, and they clearly don't have enough money to do that," he says. "Every penny from that sales tax is going to go to pay the mortgage on the rail lines. This is typical of what we've seen of light rail elsewhere — the trains cost more than they expect, they end up cutting bus service rather than improving it, and the transit rider loses."
O'Toole has compiled a rich lode of data dealing with the astronomical costs and dubious benefits of light rail: the declining proportion of commuters who ride transit in Portland, the light-rail mecca (7.6 percent, down from 9.8 percent in 1980); the dismal predictions from DRCOG of how many cars FasTracks will actually take off the road (between a half of 1 percent and 1.5 percent of the total flow); the negligible effect on auto operating speeds during peak times (with FasTracks in operation, motorists can expect to average 30 miles an hour traveling from DIA to downtown in the year 2025; without FasTracks, they'll average 29 miles an hour); the vast amounts of electricity, generated by coal-fired, carbon-belching, global-warming power plants, devoured by this supposedly "clean" technology...and on and on.
"Efficiency doesn't count anymore," he says. "What counts is that we provide people with options, even if they don't use them. Well, helicoptering people to work is an option. Shooting them out of cannons is an option. Why pick light rail? It's an extremely high-cost transit system, and it's not significantly impacting people's travel habits; it's just wasting their money."
Many of the figures O'Toole cites don't provide a fair picture of what the FasTracks system will do, Vidal insists. He prefers to zero in on what transit can accomplish in major corridors during peak travel times, when it carries as much as 30 percent of the traffic. If light rail hadn't been part of the T-Rex project, Vidal says, I-25 would require another six lanes in the next few years. "Transit is a tool for peak periods," he adds. "And FasTracks is a critical piece for getting this done."
Denver's public works manager believes there are enough traffic improvement projects in the pipeline to keep current levels of congestion holding steady until around 2015. The decade or so after that, though, depends on many interconnected unknowns: whether light rail arrives on schedule, whether various efforts to get people out of their cars are moderately successful, future fuel prices, population growth — and the list continues. Solving traffic involves wheels within wheels.
There may be more draconian measures against "auto dependency" on the horizon. Some of the brainstorming among downtown interests for enhancing the pedestrian environment includes proposals for hiking parking costs and decreasing the time allowed on parking meters. Vidal prefers a gentler approach, declaring that downtown will become a more pedestrian-friendly place as it expands its retail and residential offerings and transit connections.
"More than anything, it has to be an interesting place, a place people want to go," he says. "A big challenge is to get people to commute as pedestrians, so they feel they can walk four blocks to the transit station."
Solving Denver's congestion could depend mightily on making the journey by bus, bike or on foot as hassle-free as driving. But it could also mean heaping hassles on the already beleaguered motorist — adding storm troopers to the parking patrol, stigmatizing lone drivers like a bunch of nicotine fiends. As Henry Barnes found out sixty years ago, you can't be a nice guy and beat the traffic in this town.