Jack McCroskey, R.I.P.: Remembering Denver's father of light rail

The irascible and irrepressible Jack McCroskey passed away last week. The scant details in the Denver Post report and his online obit don't even provide his age, which had to be at least 88, and nothing of the acerbic wit and passionate citizen activism that propelled him into public office and a major role in getting Denver's light-rail system on track -- or off track, depending on which side of the battle you were on at which stage of the acrimonious mass transit battles waged on the Regional Transportation District board over twenty years or so.

The fact is, McCroskey was special -- a gadfly and holy terror to some, a godsend to others, a treasure for journalists looking for a pungent quote and some historical perspective on hotly contested public policy issues. He was an academic who taught economics at the University of Denver but found himself tugged to the public sphere by his own deep discontent with government waste and inefficiency. He was a state legislator but also a bus rider, and he spearheaded a drive to junk RTD's appointed directors with an elected board of representatives -- then became one of the first elected board members.

McCroskey sometimes referred to himself as the "father" of light rail in Denver. In the system's early stages, he was certainly its most tireless champion, pursuing the funding and political support to build the initial downtown segment with a deft hand. But after McCroskey himself was ousted from the board in the early 1990s, then came back roaring back to unseat his usurper -- leading one observer to predict that the new RTD leadership team would be the "board from hell" -- he began to battle staff and other board members over the project's increasing cost and shifting priorities.

The RTD board of McCroskey's glory years was indeed a fractious bunch; some seemed determined to derail mass transit altogether. At one point McCroskey was censured by his colleagues for using profane language -- and then they had the temerity to try to censor him as well. McCroskey and another board member filed a lawsuit against the board chairman, claiming that staff and leadership had violated their right to free speech by refusing to distribute their letters and memos. (Sample memo from McCroskey to then-RTD general manager Cal Marsella: "Please accept this memo as my formal request for your resignation as RTD general manager. Your prompt attention here will, I am confident, result in the betterment of all those concerned.")

In 2003 McCroskey and the other board member settled their lawsuit; in the end RTD paid more than $175,000 for its blundering efforts to muzzle its own directors. McCroskey went on to write a caustic book about Denver's transit struggles, Light Rail and Heavy Politics.

Whatever side of the battle McCroskey was on at any given moment, he managed to be true to his own principles and eloquent, if sometimes a bit cranky, in defense of his position. I still remember my first ride on RTD's light rail "demonstration line" in his company, and how he explained that its evolution was due to an unexpected windfall in the form of a "use tax" that the courts allowed the agency to collect, freeing up just enough surplus to get the project started.

"The easiest thing in the world would have been to let that money disappear into our regular budget," he told me. "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."

The candor was typical McCroskey. It's a quality that's hard to find in many contemporary public servants, and something McCroskey had in abundance.

Learn more about Jack McCroskey in our July 2003 feature article "The High Cost of Free Speech."

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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