Beating the Train

Shortly before six on a Wednesday evening, the first wave of derailers arrives at the charmless offices of the Independence Institute, the conservative think tank in Golden (sign in the window: "Will do public policy for food"). Stragglers come in over the next half-hour. There are eleven of them in all, hardy campaigners about to embark on a bumpy ride. Their mission: Put the brakes on light rail before it turns into a $6 billion monster.

This fall, voters will be asked to approve a 0.4 percent sales-tax hike to fund RTD's Guide the Ride proposal, an ambitious, $5.9 billion plan to build and maintain a huge package of metro-wide transit projects over the next two decades, including several big-ticket light-rail and commuter-rail lines stretching from downtown to the southern and western suburbs and to Denver International Airport. The ballot issue promises to be the most controversial of the off-year election--not only because of its staggering cost, but because of the chronic squabbling among RTD's fifteen-member elected board over the effectiveness of light rail as a rapid-transit panacea ("Runaway Train," December 13, 1995).

Although RTD is prohibited from using public funds to campaign for the tax hike, proponents of the measure have already raised $37,000 from private interests to push for rail. The opposition has been less visible, but Jon Caldara, the most vocal of the minority faction of light-rail critics on the RTD board, hopes to change all that.

"This election is going to be for sale," says Caldara, who describes Guide the Ride as a boondoggle, a fraud, and "DIA on wheels." "It's about insiders making money and not about getting good transit."

Last week Caldara and ten other like-minded rail opponents gathered to come up with a strategy to defeat the tax hike--the first step in what will likely be a noisy public debate over light rail in months to come. Caldara's group, a motley collection of neighborhood activists, Libertarians and conservative ideologues, figures it has pragmatism, economic arguments and the imperatives of the free-enterprise system on its side, but it's up against a juggernaut.

Light rail hasn't exactly taken Denver by storm--most of its present ridership consists of passengers compelled to transfer from bus lines rather than new passengers--but polls indicate that many voters favor rail as a concept, even if they don't ride it. Using existing RTD funds, boosters have managed to build 5.3 miles of track without voter approval; last year they secured a federal commitment of $120 million for an eight-mile extension to Littleton, and they plan to build a lot more with the tax hike (which, they argue, doesn't really amount to a $6 billion construction project, since that figure includes debt service and operating and maintenance costs, calculated in terms of inflated dollars). And Transit '97, the well-heeled group campaigning in support of Guide the Ride, claims a wide base of support among city and county officials, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, developers and contractors, engineers and financial concerns, Sierra Club types and other rapid-transit fans. What can a handful of naysayers do to stop them?

Westword sat in on the first strategy session of Caldara's committee. Here's how it went:

Caldara calls the meeting to order. Among those in attendance: Republican state representative Penn Pfiffner, whose district includes a residential neighborhood in Lakewood targeted for a light-rail line; Lakewood City Councilwoman Kathy Knobel; former RTD boardmember Dave Bishop; veteran lobbyist and consultant Miller Hudson; and Independence Institute senior fellow Steve Mueller, who explains that the institute isn't sponsoring the meeting but merely making the room available.

Caldara announces that the intent is not to discuss what's wrong with light rail but to figure out how to stop it. He then launches into an impromptu riff on what's wrong with light rail.

"The proposal is easy to rip apart statistically," he says, and proceeds to pepper his audience with figures. RTD currently carries about 2 percent of all commuter trips in the metro area; without the Guide the Ride package, its market share is projected to creep to 2.3 percent by 2020. If the sales tax is approved, the number goes up--to around 3 percent. That minimal budge in ridership is expected to cost a family of four between $9,000 and $12,000 over the life of the tax.

"By RTD's own numbers, this does absolutely nothing for traffic congestion, absolutely nothing for air pollution," Caldara declares. "All it does is make some people rich."

Worse, he adds, RTD is plunging ahead with the tax proposal even though the agency has conducted major investment studies in only three of the seven major transit corridors and has yet to designate what form of rapid transit--light rail, commuter rail, high-occupancy vehicle lanes--would be used in three of the remaining corridors. "It could be HOV or it could be the Elitch's log ride," he snorts.

Miller Hudson, who was active in the campaign against light rail when it was brought to the voters in the early 1980s, notes that his group was far outspent by the rail boosters but still managed to defeat the tax. One key piece of campaign literature, he recalls, was a pamphlet that suggested it would be cheaper for RTD to purchase a fleet of Mercedes sedans and hire chauffeurs for its meager riders than to build light rail.

"The arguments haven't changed significantly over time," Hudson says. "Clearly, the cost is the Achilles' heel of this."

But the issue of cost, Caldara frets, won't be enough to carry the day. As traffic worsens, the emotional appeal of the sleek white "choo-choo" grows--even if people don't ride the thing, they want everybody else to ride it and get out of their way. Hudson agrees. "I call it an emblem of urban virility," he says.

To combat pro-rail emotion, Caldara suggests, the group will have to "get passionate about the issue." Bonnie Ferguson, a Lakewood resident who's been organizing opposition to the proposed western line and recently participated in an RTD tour of the light-rail system in Portland, Oregon, suggests that there's plenty about what she saw there that should raise concerns about channeling trains through residential neighborhoods. "We've got to raise the safety issue," she says.

Councilwoman Knobel agrees. The other side is fear-mongering, she suggests--fear of gridlock, fear of the brown cloud, when "the real reasons Lakewood wants light rail is for economic development and urban renewal."

"We need to play on fear," Caldara says. "We need to plant the fear that your grandchildren will be paying off this debt and it won't decrease congestion."

He proposes an ad campaign, a two-panel billboard that would mock the gridlock fear. The first scene would show traffic stalled in Denver ("Denver without light rail"). The second would show traffic stalled in Portland ("Portland with light rail"). Other spots would promote more sensible, less costly transit alternatives: smart cars and global positioning systems, jitneys and HOV lanes.

Before the group can embark on advertising, though, it needs to get organized. Caldara is quickly elected chairman, but the group needs a well-known name as treasurer, since that's the name that will appear on campaign literature. Various well-known names are floated: former governor Dick Lamm is said to be interested in the cause; so is popular Boulder County Commissioner Paul Danish. Neither one is present to volunteer for any official position.

Media coverage is crucial, everyone agrees. The Denver Post's editorial section is a "lost cause," Caldara says, but he expects better treatment from the Rocky Mountain News and the Boulder Daily Camera. A technical writer from the Libertarian Party volunteers to help with press releases.

"Everything we do has to be turned into a media event," Caldara says. "We need to seem a lot larger than we are."

A speakers' bureau is proposed as one way to get the message out. The RTD board also plans to stage several debates on the tax increase, and Caldara says he relishes the opportunity. "No one on that board can debate this competently," he says. "I'm confident of my ability to rip anybody on that board to shreds."

The topic quickly shifts from publicity to financing. The Colorado Union of Taxpayers, the Colorado Automobile Dealers--any group, in fact, that has a vested interest in seeing billions of dollars in taxes go to highways rather than to light rail--might be expected to help out.

"The first thing we've got to do is proliferate our numbers," Caldara says. "I know in my bones if we could raise $200,000, this thing would be dead."

"The next time we meet, you need to have the first ten thousand in the bank," Representative Pfiffner tells him.

There's talk of setting up an office and a Web site, of tripling the size of the next meeting. As things wind down, only one outstanding piece of business has yet to be addressed: What will the group call itself? Suggestions: Nail Rail '97. Effective Transit Coalition (that's "ETC" for short). Save Our Roads.

Dave Bishop suggests Concerned Commuters of Colorado. It's "pretty generic," some think, but it sticks.

"Shouldn't it be 'concerned drivers'?" Bonnie Ferguson asks.
"Commuters," Caldara insists. "We're not anti-transit."
And with that, the chairman of Concerned Commuters of Colorado declares the meeting adjourned.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast