Facing facts on FasTracks

The RTD FasTracks project was originally billed as a $4.7 billion savior to our region’s transportation needs. In 2004, voters who approved the measure were told that with FasTracks voters would know exactly what they are going to get, which was supposed to be a distinctive gem for the 8-county Denver metropolitan area. Today, the project is now at a critical crossroads. Critics are rightfully wondering aloud whether the project is going to end up being nothing more than a lump of coal paid for with billions in taxpayer dollars.

Recently, RTD’s Board of Directors wisely decided against placing a doubling of the FasTracks tax on the ballot this fall. Among the primary reasons for this decision was the likelihood that a tax increase proposed during turbulent economic conditions would likely fail at the ballot box in an off-year election.

At the forefront of RTD’s agenda these days is how best to sell this tax expansion to the voters. The expected ballot measure would likely include the addition of a .4% sales tax on top of the current 1% sales tax RTD receives on all goods purchased in the 8-county Denver metropolitan area. Before this region’s taxpayers are asked to deliver even more of our community’s limited resources to this special district’s massive and seemingly out of control project budget, RTD should consider the suggestions offered below as a means to gain back the public’s trust.

First, RTD must openly and honestly admit its mistakes. Please tell us where FasTracks went so very wrong. If it was poor fiscal forecasting, then tell us where you failed. Or, if it was RTD’s failure to secure assurances for right-of-ways from the railroads, then assure us that this won’t be an issue in the future. Please don’t just blame it on the cost of commodities and sales tax revenues. The public knows there is more to it than what we are being told.

RTD must also avoid letting our local elected officials down again. By and large, our local mayors and city councilpersons are a savvy and experienced group of leaders. Over the last few years, many have supported some of RTD’s unpopular positions regarding FasTracks because they recognized the important role that FasTracks could serve in their communities. However, RTD’s continued discussion of shortening lines does nothing but harm some of FasTracks earliest municipal supporters, including Boulder, Longmont and Thornton.

Currently, the Generally Assembly is evaluating the scope of the approved audit of RTD’s finances (i.e., an audit is required every five years). One would expect that FasTracks will be included in this audit. Irrespective of this audit, RTD must still take proactive steps to detail why the overall project costs have risen so dramatically.

Any admissions of mistakes by RTD must include a detailed assessment of how the cost estimates were so dramatically incorrect and an explanation of how these past mistakes will not be repeated. Specifically, the public deserves to know why updated project estimates are feasible and realistic.

If an essential project cost is contingent on certain events, please provide sufficient detail and worst case scenarios. After nearly five years of experience on the project, RTD must have a reasonable handle on these project contingencies. If not, then put someone is charge who does. The taxpayers do not deserve any more surprises or broken promises.

At this point in the project, RTD is well aware of the land required for successful completion of the project. Much has been discussed and written about RTD’s attempted use of eminent domain to acquire requisite land and, accordingly, RTD should disclose targeted land and how much it will cost the community. In the case of the Owens Corning shingle factory or other similar impacts, the disclosure must include not only the cost of acquiring the land but the likely loss of jobs and a profitable Colorado business.

Next, shed some light on FasTracks’ expected maintenance and operation costs over the next 25 years. What costs and expenses are we signing up for long-term? Once the new lines are in place, RTD should describe how these costs will be covered; albeit fees, taxes, or other avenues.

In addition, please give the public a reasonable and defendable completion date. Please spare us the pie in the sky dates if you want to restore some of RTD’s credibility.

In order to accomplish all of these objectives, FasTracks requires effective management, especially with the pending departure of RTD General Manager Cal Marsella. Regardless of individual fault, there are far too many broken promises by the current management and leadership team as a whole to trust the job to anyone within the existing power and decision-making structure. Potential management solutions could include the appointment of one person to manage FasTracks and another to manage the existing infrastructure.

Finally, RTD should consider establishing a FasTracks advisory committee composed of leaders from both sides of the political aisle. The advisory review committee should include FasTracks supporters who are the “who’s who” of the Denver business and political community. As a means of rebuilding the image of FasTracks, this committee’s primary charge would be to challenge project assumptions and strategies to ensure that proposals are thoroughly scrutinized and credible.

RTD’s lack of credibility in its management of the FasTracks’ budget combined with uncertain economic conditions effectively doomed any chance of a tax increase passing this fall. If RTD seeks to place a tax increase on the 2010 or future ballots, the immediate focus must be on taking proactive steps necessary to regain the public’s trust, including publically detailing where RTD went wrong and how it has learned from its mistakes.

FasTracks still has the potential to be a real gem for this community, but currently the project just looks like a lump of coal.