MORE

RUNAWAY TRAINCONGRESS SPURNED IT, STATE LAWMAKERS SCORN IT, BUT CAN ANYBODY PUT THE BRAKES ON LIGHT RAIL?

part 1 of 2
The train pulls away from the Broadway Marketplace station with a meek oomph of acceleration, headed for downtown. It ascends above Alameda Avenue, whips through the railyards, leans into West Colfax--no rumbling, no lurching, no clacking, just that oh-so-slight push at the start, like a cat bumping up against you or the gentle rise of a dentist's chair.

"Isn't this nice?" asks a beaming Jack McCroskey. "You have to admit that, compared to a bus, it's a smooth ride."

McCroskey knows a thing or two about buses. He rode plenty during his ten years on the board of directors of the Regional Transportation District. Now he rides a light-rail train twice a day, along with a smattering of Auraria students, south Denver commuters, downtown business types and Five Points residents. Sometimes he has errands downtown; sometimes he just wants to introduce visitors to that smooth ride. Having led the campaign to launch the $120 million line, the seventy-year-old former RTD chairman is considered the godfather of light rail in Denver, and he shows off the gleaming white trains--electric, smokeless, rumble-free--with the proprietary air of a priest contemplating his nave.

"People who ride it seem to like it," he says, his gaze settling on a bookish young woman sitting across from him. "How about you? Do you like the light rail?"

"Oh, I love it," she says. "I go to Metro, and we get a bus pass with our student fees."

A security guard strolls down the aisle, inspecting tickets. McCroskey produces his lifetime pass. RTD has only three fare inspectors for the entire line, which means riders on half the trains aren't checked at all. But the agency estimates that barely 1 percent of light-rail passengers violate its honor-system fare policy. Although 7,334 suspected deadbeats were ordered off the trains during the first year of operation, only 37 were issued citations for fare evasion.

Not that it matters. If RTD had to depend on $1 peak fares to fund its light-rail project, the trains would never leave the station. In the world of rapid transit, fare-box revenues are mere chump change. It costs RTD far more to operate than it can collect from passengers--around $1.70 per passenger to operate a bus, around $2.34 per passenger to run light rail. More than 80 percent of the agency's $300 million annual budget comes not from fares but through various public subsidies--sales taxes, use taxes, federal grants and the like.

In other words, people pay for mass transit whether they ride or not; there's no way of evading the fare. One of the selling points of light rail was RTD's pledge that the downtown phase wouldn't cost the people of Denver one dime in additional taxes--"and we delivered on that promise," McCroskey says. But ask the godfather about the future of light rail, and his mood darkens. Proud as he is of the existing 5.3 miles of not-so-rapid transit, McCroskey has become one of the harshest critics of RTD's plans to expand.

"We told everyone that this would be a demonstration project," he says. "That people would have a chance to look it over and decide if they wanted more of it before we did anything else. Well, that's not happening."

What is happening is that light rail is going south--first to the deserted Cinderella City shopping mall in Englewood, then on to Littleton, at a cost of roughly $18 million per mile. The fifteen-member RTD board first okayed the proposed addition in the spring of 1994, seven months before its downtown "demonstration line" even opened. No public referendum has ever been held on the proj-ect, and federal funding for it has all but evaporated, but RTD is pressing forward anyway, its plans fueled by behind-the-scenes politicking and creative financing. Scheduled to open in 1999, the $140 million Southwest Corridor won't dramatically improve light-rail ridership right away, but that's beside the point. Its backers hope to keep the project alive while forestalling the day of reckoning, when voters will be asked for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in tax increases to finance a metro-wide system.

Starting with just an oomph of encouragement, light rail has been picking up momentum at a bewildering rate. The feds snubbed it. State legislators have ridiculed it as a white elephant on wheels. Some of RTD's own boardmembers have questioned its usefulness and its ridership figures. But no one, it seems, knows how to stop it.

"Basically, this is a money game," says Jon Caldara, one of a handful of light-rail skeptics on the current board. "There are people who are going to do well politically and financially over this. We're screaming for service in other areas, yet there's this incredible political force to build this light-rail line that serves so few people but taxes so many. You have to wonder where the motivation is coming from."

Supporters of the southern extension say the driving force isn't politics but increasing congestion in the metro area and the need to get moving on a solution. "This is not an inexpensive endeavor, but with traffic volumes growing 3 to 5 percent a year, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize we have to do something," says Phil Anderson, who unseated McCroskey in the 1992 RTD board election and has emerged as one of the principal crusaders for rapid transit. "Light rail has been studied for over twenty years in metro Denver, and the opportunity is there to move the project ahead."

The scramble to fund the southern route comes after months of upheaval at RTD, never the calmest of bureaucracies. A new general manager, Cal Marsella, has vowed to trim the fat at the notoriously bloated agency--while simultaneously negotiating up to $55,000 in moving expenses for himself on top of his six-figure salary. Marsella has also presented the RTD board with an ambitious proposal for expanded service--small buses and vans for neighborhood routes, bike racks on buses, more parking lots for commuters--that would cost $57 million in capital investment and $31 million a year to operate.

While chewing on those numbers, the board has had to contend with a few distractions of its own. Last spring RTD chairman Brian Propp resigned because of business commitments abroad; the new chairman is the famously erratic Ben Klein, a former opponent of light rail who's since joined the ranks of the true believers. One boardmember, Gloria Holliday, was recently censured by her colleagues for launching into a public tirade against "Anglo-Saxon" males. Two others have joined with McCroskey in suing RTD over $5.7 million in 1993 revenues that they contend should be rebated to taxpayers.

That lawsuit may be a dead issue, depending on how the courts interpret last month's passage of a ballot proposal exempting RTD from the excess-revenue refund requirements of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights Amendment. The victory at the polls--known as "de-Brucing," after TABOR author Douglas Bruce--took even some of RTD's defenders by surprise and was quickly hailed as a vote of confidence in RTD's management.

"There's no question this election helps us," declares former RTD spokesman Andrew Hudson, who recently became Mayor Wellington Webb's press secretary. "I'm glad people took the issue out of the muddy waters of board controversy. My fear was this was going to be a vote on the board."

Chairman Klein views the result as exactly that. "We were bucking a bad tide, but if we were as bad as people thought we were, we couldn't have won," he says. "I really feel RTD is, excuse the pun, back on track."

One week after the election, RTD's board designated a portion of its 1994 surplus of $2.7 million for several service improvements. Although none involved light rail, one of the hidden benefits of de-Brucing is that it makes it easier for RTD to solicit funding for rapid transit from other state and local agencies, money that might otherwise have to be refunded as excess revenue. Negotiations with the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) are already under way, as are strategy sessions between RTD boardmembers and a coalition of private companies with a sizable financial interest in future light-rail construction.

The prospect of more light rail without voter approval has McCroskey seething. As he sees it, RTD is engaging in a kind of surreptitious empire-building while trying to cover its tracks by vowing to "go to the people" when the time is right. And the people who stand to benefit the most from the southern line, he suggests, aren't the passengers he chats with on the trains every day.

"If you ever want to see a government agency that is run for the benefit of its employees and its staff rather than in the public interest," he says, "RTD is one of the finest examples extant."

With a service area that stretches from Watkins to the Continental Divide, RTD is one of the country's largest metropolitan transit companies, at least in geographic terms. Yet its market penetration--the number of people who choose mass transit instead of the ever-present automobile to get them around town--is less than 5 percent.

Light rail has the potential to change that dismal figure, transforming the agency from a much-reviled bus company to a regional mass-transit powerhouse. But so far, the promise has proved elusive.

The first serious pitch for such a system came in 1973, when RTD, formed out of the ashes of the privately run Denver Metro Transit, dangled the prospect of rapid transit in order to persuade voters in the six-county district to approve a half-cent sales-tax increase. Federal officials denied funding for the system, citing Denver's lack of population density, fierce loyalty to the automobile and poor history of bus ridership--but the RTD tax remained. The agency went back to the voters in 1980, seeking a 77-mile light-rail network that would have been funded entirely through local taxes. Stung once, this time the voters turned RTD down.

In 1982, RTD's appointed board of directors was replaced with an elected board, including McCroskey, a former state legislator and inveterate critic of RTD's bus service. Although McCroskey is fond of saying that "RTD started with a lie"--the 1973 promise of rapid transit--the new boardmembers had little interest in pursuing light rail until an unexpected flurry of cash dropped out of the sky. What finally put the project on the fast track was a 1989 Colorado Supreme Court decision allowing RTD to collect a "use tax" on goods purchased outside the district. The windfall of $6 million to $9 million a year was just enough to build a demonstration line, in the hope that voters would like it enough to support further construction.

McCroskey defends the decision as a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. "The easiest thing in the world would have been to let that money disappear into our regular budget," he says. "Any bureaucracy that can't absorb that kind of increase in revenues isn't worthy of the name. And RTD is damn sure worthy of the name."

From the outset, though, RTD's plans for light rail were strongly shaped by political considerations--more so, perhaps, than by concerns over Denver's swollen arteries and urgent transit needs. The agency's initial proposal to build the demo between downtown and Stapleton, a crucial link to what would become service to Denver International Airport, met with clamorous opposition from Wilma Webb, then a Denver legislator, and Park Hill residents, who viewed it as a neighborhood-slayer; the plan was quickly abandoned. Even the present terminus at 30th and Downing streets was reached only after a bitter standoff with Five Points business owners that resulted in costly condemnation proceedings and several significant compromises in the design. Downtown business interests and Auraria officials--arguably the greatest beneficiaries of the line--protested loudly, too, over the seemingly endless construction and disruption of traffic.

Thwarted in its march to Stapleton, RTD extended the demonstration line from Auraria to the former Burkhardt Steelyard off South Broadway in a bid to boost ridership and give passengers a taste of the trains' 55-mile-per-hour cruising speed. The addition hiked the cost of the line from $70 million to $116 million; the RTD staff "tried to make it a much fatter contract," McCroskey says, with a price tag of $140 million.

But the extra three miles of track may have saved the entire project from disaster. "In retrospect, if we had not done this link, it would have been a tremendous flop," McCroskey says now. "The heaviest ridership comes from there."

After fourteen months of operation, its promoters consider light rail to be a quiet success. Although the line hasn't taken as many buses off the street as RTD had originally planned, estimated ridership is around 14,000 "boardings" every weekday, just about what the agency expected. (A boarding isn't quite the same as a passenger; for example, McCroskey alone accounted for three boardings by riding the train downtown, transferring to a train to Five Points, then taking another train south.) Parking lots at Alameda and the southern terminus are strained to capacity, and polls indicate widespread public approval for the line.

But critics point out that light rail has had no appreciable effect on air quality or downtown traffic; if anything, congestion on downtown streets is worse, thanks to the reduction in auto lanes on California and Stout. And the bulk of light rail's ridership consists of people who would be riding mass transit anyway--bus passengers who are compelled to transfer to and from buses at the southern terminus in order to complete travel between their homes and downtown. "It really is an exercise in forced transit," says boardmember Caldara.

Colleague Anderson counters that 30 percent of light rail's customers are not transfers but new RTD riders altogether, far more than anticipated. "Our ridership is right where it should be, but the nature of that ridership is dramatically different than we thought," he says. Although the high proportion of new riders suggests RTD lost some old customers who balked at the added step of transferring to the train from commuter buses, the Park-N-Ride off South Broadway has taken more than a thousand cars off the street.

Caldara argues that all RTD is doing is providing free parking and a quick shuttle for downtown commuters, at enormous cost. Yet the "success" of light rail to date is often invoked as a rationale for building more--an argument advanced even by chairman Klein, despite the fact that he was one of only two boardmembers who voted against the Littleton plan last year.

"It was a demonstration project, but how long do you demonstrate?" Klein asks. "I changed my mind because I felt if the people really wanted this system, and with Mayor Webb taking an active interest in it, I should not stand in the way. We've reached the stage where the people have demonstratively supported it."

The eight-mile Littleton route will more than double the size of the existing line, but not even RTD's most optimistic projections suggest that it will double ridership; the estimated gain in daily boardings has been pegged at 9,000 at first and around 20,000 by the year 2015. McCroskey believes the smarter transit move would be to the congested southeast, along a Buchtel Boulevard right-of-way RTD already owns. "If you took light rail out to South Colorado Boulevard and built a parking lot there, you'd have a hell of a lot of riders," he says.

But the Southwest Corridor is RTD's top priority--a politically viable route through a primarily industrial corridor that won't tear out blocks of houses--and, just as important, it enjoys the backing of DRCOG, the Webb administration (which lobbied vigorously for Klein to assume the board chairmanship) and Englewood and Littleton officials. Although RTD controls a fair amount of right-of-way in other directions, including the Buchtel corridor and a contemplated route out West 13th Avenue to Golden, light rail, like water, tends to follow the path of least resistance.

Financing the new line, though, remains a formidable challenge. When the federal government rejected RTD's efforts to pry loose $15 million in start-up funds last spring, the agency was forced to scrounge up $4 million left over from other projects to prepare the final design of the route in-house. The agency also has set aside $29 million in a "transit development reserve fund" that could be tapped for light-rail construction.

Last month boardmember Karen Benker drafted a resolution that would have sought a four-tenths-of-a-cent RTD sales-tax increase, to be placed before the voters in next November's election. The money would have been used to fund a combination of expanded bus service and metro-wide rapid transit over the next twenty years, at a cost of more than $2 billion.

"My intent was to start the discussion--`Do you want to do this? Is this something we should ask the voters about?'" explains Benker. The fact that voters narrowly rejected another tax increase for light rail fifteen years ago has no bearing on the current situation, she adds. "The sense I've been getting is that people would like to have that choice again."

But at a November board meeting, Benker backed off her resolution, substituting one that urged the board to lend its support to Governor Romer's recently assembled blue-ribbon transportation committee, which is also exploring the possibility of a tax increase. Yet even that mild foray into the sensitive tax issue was defeated; several boardmembers have stated that it's "too soon" to propose a tax hike to a public still reeling from sticker shock over Denver International Airport.

McCroskey, a former economics professor, agrees. Noting that Benker's modest proposal would have used the new revenues to finance $2 billion in bonds, he says, "Another $2 billion in debt would put this community under severe strain. That's a very dangerous number."

Anderson ticks off various scenarios by which RTD could continue to fund light rail without going directly to the voters, including pursuing additional federal monies ("It's a question of being smarter politically"), working with Romer's committee, and tapping into state legislative surpluses and highway funds that could be "flexed" for rapid transit. At present Anderson is working on a plan that would combine $25 million from RTD's reserve fund with $20 million each from DRCOG and CDOT, for a total of $65 million--enough to build another three miles of the southern route, to Cinderella City.

Anderson concedes that any attempt to divert highway funds to RTD would probably face stiff opposition in the state legislature. "Obviously, this is a major move," he says. "We need to be careful, but this is not an attack on all the highway funds to build rapid transit. If we asked for $40 million over five years, that would be less than 5 percent of the money available."

The possibility of forging new alliances with other local and state agencies has its attractions for some members of the RTD board, which has always boasted a contingent of well-connected bureaucrats. Anderson, for example, is a policy analyst for CDOT; Benker works in the governor's budget office (although not on transportation issues); and boardmember Lawrence Sloan used to work in the Denver auditor's office.

Klein, though, frets about the autonomy of the elected board if it takes money from other power centers. "It's kind of scary to me. We're supposed to be an independent agency," he says. "I would not turn down CDOT or DRCOG, but it's not as easy as it looks, because you have to go to the legislature. I just can't see them giving us a bunch of money."

Neither can Dick Mutzebaugh, the Highlands Ranch Republican who chairs the state senate's transportation committee. "With all the problems we've got with highway repair, their chances are slim, if at all," he says. "The legislation this year dealing with highway money is going to be more stringent and more tied to repair work than it's ever been."

Mutzebaugh figures that rapid transit is at the bottom of his committee's priorities. "The subsidies for light rail are just outrageous," he says. "The ridership pays one dollar for every nine dollars we spend. With highways, the rider pays for everything--it all comes out of the gas tax. And if you compare their ridership with the growth of the population, RTD's ridership is actually going down."

Although the southern route is headed in his general direction, Mutzebaugh is dubious of the line's promised economic benefits. "The belief is that if you put light rail out there, people will move to Littleton and it will regenerate the downtown area. Well, I wouldn't ride it," he snaps. "I don't think it gets you to downtown Denver in a timely manner or gets you where you want to go."

Everybody likes light rail in principle, Mutzebaugh adds, but nobody wants to pay for it. "If they really think it's a good idea, then they ought to put it on the ballot and see if people would vote for it."

But Klein says his agency needs to do "a lot of PR work in the community" before moving on a tax proposal. A former state legislator, he has blasted Romer for failing to give RTD a seat on his transportation panel. "It's the governor's baby," he says. "If he goes with his referendum and we go with ours, RTD won't get anything."

Anderson suggests RTD "needs to be a player" not only with the governor's blue-ribbon committee but with the Coalition for Mobility and Air Quality, a private trade group formed last year to study options for financing the state's transportation needs. Although the group's steering committee includes environmental and citizens' interests, its core membership is a who's who of engineering and contracting companies involved in building Colorado highways, DIA, light rail and other major public-works projects, including Carter Burgess, Centennial Engineering, O'Brien Kreitzberg and Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM).

"We're looked at as suspect, as the conflict-of-interest guys," says Randy Harrison, CMAQ's executive director, who works for DMJM. "We understand that, but there is a serious problem here, and we've tried to reach out to support other groups and broaden our interests."

CMAQ has proposed raising up to $12 billion over the next twenty years in additional gas and sales taxes, tolls and other mechanisms to address expected shortfalls in transportation funding. The group has held roundtables across the state and is preparing polling data with an eye toward a possible ballot issue next fall. Both Anderson and Benker have worked closely with CMAQ, which has its own member on Romer's transportation committee.

Anderson acknowledges that RTD will ultimately have to "go to the people" for light-rail money. But that doesn't mean the agency will be brazen enough to make such a request directly. Several sources have suggested that if the legislature balks, the money might end up coming through a citizen's initiative led by a public-spirited group of interested parties such as CMAQ.

"We need to work with anybody and everybody," Anderson insists. And when it's time to float another tax increase for light rail, he says, it may be best for the proposal to come not from RTD but "from various presentations from the highway and transit side. Let people who are notable in the community carry the water."

end of part 1