For the past two years, the board of directors of the Regional Transportation District has been packed with mass-transit true believers convinced that light-rail trains are the answer to Denver's transportation woes. In March, for instance, the board voted 12-2 to forge ahead with a light-rail link from Denver to Littleton, seven months before its "demonstration line" in downtown Denver had even opened. Just last week the board approved the purchase of six new light-rail cars, something that will cost local taxpayers close to $12 million.
But a bumper crop of new, more conservative directors, set to take office in January, may well put the brakes on RTD's ambitious plans to expand light rail throughout the metro area.
Fresh from orientation seminars at the Independence Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Golden, many of the newcomers say their top priority is fiscal restraint, not new transit systems. "We owe it to the taxpayers to spend their money wisely," says incoming director Brian Propp, "or not spend it at all." And most question light rail as a magical solution to traffic problems, saying RTD should hold off on expanding light rail south to Littleton.
"This expansion down the southwest corridor doesn't make sense to me," says Daniel Gallegos, an incoming boardmember from Conifer. "Let's give [light rail downtown] a couple of years before we start expanding."
"I'm not going to vote to expand light rail just becase there's so much momentum on the staff to keep it running," says new director Jon Caldara. "Denver's already suffering with Denver International Airport. We don't need that with light rail. Let's take our time and do it right."
But current boardmembers say they're sure their new colleagues will support light rail once they assume office and become more educated about transportation issues. "I think people are overly scared of them," says incumbent director Edie Bryan of the new boardmembers. Phil Anderson, another current director, says he has a "tremendous sense of optimism" that the new arrivals will "do the right thing."
But incoming director David Bishop of Aurora says that Anderson, Bryan and their colleagues should brace themselves for some changes in philosophy at RTD. "I'm afraid there's going to be some conflicts," Bishop says.
With a $300-million-a-year budget, RTD is one of Colorado's largest government agencies, overseeing metro-area bus service, the construction of select new highways and the operation of its new downtown Denver light-rail link, which opened in October. The agency's fifteen-member board sets policy goals and directs the agency's administrative staff.
Seven new directors, several of whom ran unopposed, were elected in November and will take their seats on the board January 10. Incumbent Ben Klein, one of the two directors who voted against the southwest-corridor extension this past spring and a longtime board pariah, also ran unopposed and won a second term.
Light-rail skeptics don't need a majority to have a major impact on the future direction of RTD. Under a state law, a ten-vote super majority is required before the agency can proceed with any major transportation project. A bloc of six votes could thwart further expansion of light rail.
Adding to the potential for a sea change is the departure of Chairman Ken Hotard, a light-rail supporter. Indeed, some have expressed fear that Klein, who was convicted of felony tax evasion in the 1970s and has a history of erratic behavior, might muster enough support to replace Hotard as chairman of the new board.
Hotard says that would be a "disaster," but he doubts Klein has a legitimate shot at the office. Several of the incoming directors, however, express admiration for Klein because he faces up to an RTD staff seemingly bent on pushing light rail on metro-area commuters. "He's probably the only one who hasn't been indoctrinated," says Propp. "He remains an independent thinker. To me that shows backbone and fortitude and a logical thought process going on in his head. I admire him for standing up."
Richard Rudden, another new director, agrees, saying Klein "has impressed me a great deal."
"Ben--he calls it like it is," Rudden says. "I feel he would make a good chairman or vice chairman." Klein was out of town last week and unavailable for comment.
With so much at stake, lobbying of the new members has already begun in earnest. Incoming directors say one of the incumbents has mailed each of them a copy of a Westword article detailing Klein's troubled past ("Life on the Edge," March 23). The RTD staff has held a number of orientation seminars for the new boardmembers. And before and after the election, the conservative Independence Institute invited the newly elected members to meetings where former directors talked about their experience on the RTD board.
The Institute, which opposes light rail as a waste of tax money, excluded incumbents from the post-election session, says Senior Fellow Dennis Polhill. "We wanted these guys to form their own opinions," Polhill says.
Director-elect Propp, a political activist who chairs the Adams County chapter of Ross Perot's United We Stand America, says the seminars with the RTD staff were much more "indoctrinational" than the gathering at the Independence Institute was. "There's a lot of pressure from the staff and management to align the new boardmembers to their way of thinking" and get them to support light rail, Propp says.
Propp, like many other new members, says he strongly supports the current light-rail link, which runs from Interstate 25 and Broadway to the Five Points commercial district north of downtown. "I think it's wonderful," he says.
But Propp and others say the RTD should wait a year or two before plunging ahead with the Denver-to-Littleton extension. Under current plans, most of the money for that line--about $100 million--would come from the federal government. Still, the RTD would have to cough up at least $25 million to complete it. And Propp says the chances of getting lots of federal money for the project have diminished severely since the Republican Party gained control of Congress.
Incumbent Anderson, a light-rail supporter, says it's too late to turn back on the southwest-corridor expansion. He notes that the RTD is already spending $6 million on preliminary engineering studies for the project. "We have approval to build" the extension, Anderson says.
The newcomers beg to differ. "I can't support anything in the near future until somebody can convice me that this is worth pursuing," Bishop says. "It is not a done deal," agrees Propp. "And anyone who suggests that it is, is trying to further intimidate and indoctrinate."
Terri Binder, an incoming director from Arvada, says she finds it "disturbing" that the current board voted to spend $12 million on new light-rail cars only weeks before the new members take office. She suspects the RTD staff wanted to rush the purchase through so it didn't have to justify the expenditure to the more skeptical incoming members.
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RTD spokesman Andrew Hudson says the agency was able to get a "really good price" for the cars but had to order them before the end of the year or face losing the discount.
Hudson also denies the RTD staff has a pro-light-rail agenda and says it will follow in whatever direction the new board tells it to go. But Hudson does say that a lot of dissent about light rail on the new board might jeopardize the agency's chances at federal help for the project.
"There's plenty of other communities" around the country that want light rail, Hudson says. A reversal of the decision to expand would put Denver at "the back of the line" for federal funding.