Desire, deficits, and light rail

(Andrews in Denver Post, May 13) Metro Denver’s ill-fated love affair with RTD has dragged on for a third of a century. Like many a dysfunctional relationship, it has featured cosmetics and broken promises on one side, gullibility and an open checkbook on the other. Can this marriage be saved? While the cycle of hope and betrayal has flopped as public policy, it might fly as theater: “A Desire Named Streetcar.” The latest embarrassment is an admission of huge budget deficits for the FasTracks light-rail plan, hilariously paired with Pollyanna assurances from RTD officials. Tennessee Williams was never this entertaining.

True, these trains of tomorrow aren’t quite the trolleys of old, and their tracks don’t all share streets – though some do. But the panting, irrational desire has long been with us for a rail system that gets the OTHER guy onto transit so traffic is less congested for your car. The Regional Transportation District started collecting sales tax in the early 1970s on the promise of building such trains by 1980. Dream on.

Those 93 miles of rail never happened, nor did the tax cut that was to follow them. Decades later, the agency finally built the Five Points line, then Southwest, then Southeast, without increasing taxes. Voters in 2004 approved FasTracks, a 67 percent tax hike to construct 119 miles of light rail on six lines by 2017. But deficits now have the tracks going nowhere fast.

RTD admitted in February that the $4.7 billion construction cost has become $6.5 billion. In April, general manager Cal Marsella also conceded that “revenues are coming down pretty fast.” A billion dollars short on the income side, plus $1.8 billion in expense overruns, suddenly leaves the project barely half funded. The choice facing taxpayers and commuters appears to be either thwarted desire (yet again) or heavier alimony.

Au contraire, says Marsella. “We’re still going to deliver the program as advertised,” he insisted in a TV debate on April 20. Maybe even better than advertised, if you believe his sales pitch in a front-page Post story on April 15. There the glib GM touted a previously unmentioned “maglev” supertrain to DIA and a private-partnership escape route from the budget trap. Marsella enthuses that the private angle “opens opportunities for any and all alternatives” to rescue FasTracks.

As a privatization advocate, I’d like to believe that. But according to mass-transit analyst Randall O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute, the key is giving a private partner both a downside for cost control and an upside for profits. He warns that if Denver lets bidders pass through their overruns, as was done for the “design-build-operate-maintain” deals in New Jersey, Minnesota, and his home state of Oregon, taxpayers gain nothing.

With unions reclaiming bus routes that used to be competitively bid, tough contracting in RTD is out. So color me skeptical. O’Toole also notes that airport lines are the poorest performers in any rail system. And he is now a very credible Cassandra, having predicted the FasTracks budget fiasco in a 2004 study.

I like his recommended alternative to rail in that study, bus-rapid transit (BRT) lines and high-occupancy/toll lanes. HOT lanes on north I-25 are relieving congestion and yielding double the predicted revenue, as the Colorado Tolling Enterprise chairman reported in a letter to the Post last Monday.

In the statute letting voters okay RTD’s big (but now insufficient) tax hike, a provision allows for its repeal in the same manner. We should repeal the higher tax this November. The old rate, six tenths instead of a full penny, could fund the BRT-HOT approach and leave us money ahead. For mobility, Coloradans don’t want to be like Blanche in “Streetcar,” dependent on the kindness of strangers. We prefer the freedom of our own vehicles, thank you.