RTD rail lines continue to flunk the cost-benefit test for metro Denver commuters and taxpayers, warns contributor Tom Graham
The Regional Transportation District in metro Denver is Colorado's fourth largest government as measured by spending. Its power is immense, yet the 15-member board has a low political profile and elections remain nonpartisan despite efforts by some of us to help inform voters by identifying candidates with the Republican or Democratic or whatever party brand (corresponding roughly though not exactly to more or less fiscal discipline and respect for markets). With help from my conservative friends Natalie Menten, a current RTD director; Neil Quinlan, a former director; and Dennis Polhill of the Independence Institute, we've pegged the following 2014 board candidates as Republicans. The list is alpabetical by district. Francone is the one I'm really high on.
District J - Larry Hoy District K - Rich Monroe District L - Lorraine Anderson District N - Tina Francone
By Tom GrahamWhy is the FasTracks fiasco still with us, when the studies and reports of the regional and transportation districts themselves, the federal watchdog agency, and the advice of experienced transit experts say that bus rapid transit is superior to rail in every way? Following is the whole picture. Those who read and assimilate this analysis will have passed the definitive course on RTD and FasTracks.
Rail is inappropriate for this type of region and RTD's FasTracks will have a negligible effect on Denver area transportation. The main benefit is to pay-to-play businesses, some of who have large no-bid contracts. It detracts from planning for effective transit and is vastly too expensive. Proponents are those who have little knowledge of public transportation, or were influenced by misrepresentations, or who are being paid to promote rail transportation, or who expect contracts or jobs. That’s it. The result promises to be decades of feeble public transportation while we sit in traffic.
Until 1964 most transit in the nation was privately owned and operated, but regulated as a public utility. Then along came the Urban Mass Transit Act, with agencies getting federal grants for taking over. In 10 years all were public. The usual arrangement was for the equipment to be sold to banks that deducted depreciation, a tax shelter until 2004, when Congress halted the tax break.
RTD was created by the Colorado legislature in 1969, with the dictatorial West Pointer, John Simpson as manager. In 1973 RTD promised to build light rail in return for a 0.5% sales tax, later raised to 0.6%. RTD took the money and ran, with no rail provided. In 1997 the predecessor to FasTracks, Guide–the-Ride, asking for a 67% sales tax increase, was put to a public vote. It failed largely because the public was asked to approve a pig-in-a-poke, without details of what they were buying provided. The Denver region considered that this was the second time they had been bilked. RTD had lied about the need for more taxes and built 34.8 miles of light rail without the unnecessary additional tax.
In 2004 a rehash called FasTracks was put to a vote with the public given no choice between a rail system and alternatives, such as proven bus systems. They were given the choice of rail or nothing, along with a campaign of threats about a region without transit for decades if the election failed. A $4.7 billion project was sold to the public to be financed as follows:
50.2% ………. 0.4% sales tax 4.3%.................COPs* 3.0%................. TIFIA* 20.9%................ Pay-as-you-go cash 17.3%................ Federal New Start 2.3%.................. Federal other 2.0%.................. Local
*COP = certificate of participation, a form of long-term debt. TIFIA = Transportation Infrastructure Finance & Infrastructure Act
Original plans left out the Lone Tree extension and when the “Blue Book” was sent out to all voters, the “Con” statement had been changed to misrepresent public comments. There never was any expectation by knowledgeable residents that this was more than a “foot on the door.”
Very quickly the project was $3.2 billion over budget and short $2.8 billion revenue. Six years later the tax is still being collected with nothing to show for it except for some construction along the West Corridor. This week we were treated to a 3rd world-type display for the ground breaking of the East Line to the Airport. Never mentioned to the public is the fact that one of the major proposals is to charge the tax for another 32 years before the whole regional project is completed. While only the West Line is being built at this time, all of the 2.8 million people in the 8-county district are paying for it. Families will each pay thousands in taxes before a train ever runs.
As failure to produce what was promised to voters in ‘04 becomes evident, proponents of the rail system move toward public private partnership (PPP) schemes for financing. PPPs are 60% over budget nationwide. The big news of July, 2010 was that Denver Transit Partners had been picked to build and operate Arvada’s Gold Line, the East Corridor to Denver International Airport (DIA), and part of the NW Corridor in a PPP. The deal was for RTD to pay $777 million up front, plus $1.1 billion over six years, and $40 billion for 40 years. We don’t know if this will materialize, as Denver Transit Partners major investor stated that they would pull out. Such lack of commitment doesn’t build confidence.
Undaunted, in August of 2010, RTD sold $398 million in tax-exempt private-activity bonds to get the $1.2 billion PPP fiasco to DIA started. Along with publicity about this problem-solving solution was the statement that there was a $300 million saving from the original budget estimate. Of course, as RTD proclamations generally are lies, we checked and found that it’s $700 million more than projected costs, and would obligate most of the funds for any other part of FasTracks. That fact can be worried about later.
It hasn’t been broadcast loudly to the public that these bonds are given a rating of BBB(-). That’s equivalent to Moody’s Baa3, or just above the non-investment grade, just above junk bonds, meaning that the public will be obligated to pay a high interest rate to unload the bonds. These “private activity bonds,” permit the money to be given to a private international consortium which will build the project, and must retire the debt. RTD is, of course is tax exempt and the bond purchaser gets away without paying a tax on the gain.
While costing public a pretty high bond interest rate, in addition to begging for federal bail-outs and private investment gimmicks, FasTracks still is insolvent and RTD staff has recommended the 3rd fare increase in 4 years. These proposed increases are local: 12.5%, express: 14.3%, local monthly; 11.4% express pass: 9.4%, regional pass: 7.3%. Along with this, a $3 million cut in bus and train service is proposed. On July 13, the Board was told by the District’s financial officials that $18 million in cuts must be made to balance the cash flow in 2011.
They are hoping for $123 million from the feds and cost-sharing with the Colorado Department of Trans-portation (CDOT) to make up for the under-estimate of the line along I-225 from Parker Rd. to Iliff, and to widen 3 miles from Parker Rd. to Mississippi. As encouragement to the feds, RTD cites the great success of the road-and-rail T-REX project, the southeast line, which actually was 59% over budget. Shortly before completion, the rail portion of T-REX was 93% over budget. Also, the Southwest light rail line was 28% over initial estimates broadcast for public consumption. Note that RTD increases estimates and budget mid-project, then brags, “RTD always comes in on time and under budget.”
RTD isn’t alone in false rail project cost pronouncements. As of a couple years ago, Miami’s was 106% over, Detroit 50%, D.C. 83%, Atlanta 58%, Buffalo 51%, Northern New Jersey’s 78%. Only Pittsburgh was on-target. Lying to get a foot in the door is a rail transit rule.
By the same method as “coming in under budget” RTD will state about a new project that it has greater ridership than predicted. When it becomes obvious that it is not attracting riders, they will lower the “predictions” for public consumption.
Rail ridership is beefed up by curtailing bus service. For example, on the early Southwest Corridor along Santa Fe rider numbers were pumped up by stopping bus service. A CDOT rough estimate said that 90% were former bus riders who moved to light rail because there was no other public transport. Later, RTD admitted that 75% were from the bus. There really was little increase in transit use, but a tremendous capital expense. Overall, current RTD rail runs at 10% of capacity. Light rail cars are averaging 13.5 passengers. The U.S. average is 26. Los Angeles and Boston average 38. Major cities including New York, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, New Orleans, have had declining or no-growth transit ridership since 1984. Boston is the only exception.
An important consideration in choosing the efficient mode is that buses can leave the station about 4 minutes apart. Light rail usually needs 15 minutes headway. This can be longer depending on how much length of single track prevents passing. Regarding route flexibility, if the destination of many riders, such as place of major employment, changes, bus routes are easy to change. Fixed rail stays permanent.
It is highly suspected that RTD falsifies numbers of riders, although we can’t offer proof without much effort. When FasTracks projected riderships have showed little probability of cost-effectiveness, federal dollars have been hard to come by. Coincidently and remarkably, on August 17 RTD announced that the yet-unfunded lines actually had about double the earlier estimates of future riders. Figures for the West Corridor, DIA Line and Gold Line had already passed the federal test. Note, however, that the EIS for the West Corridor had been turned down earlier because of inflation of the numbers. We haven’t yet found anyone who doesn’t question the numbers and motivation for doubling them. Thornton’s manager for transportation writes, “We felt the numbers were low. The new numbers are realistic and we’re pleased.” See the actual new estimates below.
Coincidentally with allegations about inaccurate or falsified ridership predictions, the POST editorialized on August 19 “Caution on latest FasTracks figures,” and politely stated, “We’re a bit skeptical about the new ridership estimates…we’ve watched RTD come to grips with the fact that some earlier estimates used to sell voters on the multimodal transit system were way off.” (note that use of the term “multi-modal” is O.K. because there are feeder buses and one corridor with some BRT in the plan, but it is substantially rail)
The editorial details some changes in estimates. Line to Thornton: 13,100 raised to 24,100. I-225 segment: 17,900 to 34,200. Boulder/Longmont: 8,400 to 17,400. That is a 92% increase for those three lines. It’s obvious to “not on the payroll” transportation planners that rider and cost figures are manufactured, so as to be likely to pass voter and federal scrutiny, then worked backward to a pre-conception result. The above differences are ridiculous. The POST mentions that the new manager promised more accountability on estimates given to the public.
It has to be recognized immediately that people are hired by RTD, DRCOG, local planning agencies, and consultants, to insure that a rail system is approved by any means, not to plan for efficient transit. Local transportation committees are dedicated to rail, regardless of dismal cost-effectiveness. RTD documents state a goal of achieving a rail system. The Transit Alliance organization is financed by 22 communities in this region to promote rail transit, but its mission statement is to promote transit oriented development (TOD), which means high-density, subsidized housing, and has nothing to do with efficient transit. Light rail is only incidental to their goal.
Knowledgeable opponents have been trying for seven years to get potential voters to take the trouble to find out enough about transit in this area to be able to make a rational decision, while recognizing that this is the most costly project in Colorado’s history. It should be emphasized here that federal funds going into FasTracks could pay for all the highway maintenance needs and backlog of projects. Related to this nationally is the abuse of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which has been raided for years to near extinction for marginal rail projects that it was not intended for.
It is important to note that the project was sold to the public as a $4.7 billion reduction of traffic congestion. Sitting in traffic is annoying to drivers everywhere and solutions certainly interest the public. Former RTD manager Cal Marsella set the figure as “not much more than $4.2 billion.” It was determined that voters would buy a 0.4% sales tax increase, thus the 0.4% (a 67% increase in the RTD tax), which along with the other financing elements detailed above, would pay for a $4.7 billion project. Officials knew at the time that this might not be closely related to the actual cost of the advertised project placed before the public. The attitude was to get something passed and worry about paying for it later. Now the RTD Board is planning a massive campaign to raise the tax another 0.4% (a total of 133% tax increase for FasTracks), with consideration of 0.6%, or even 0.8%, in private conversations. Asked if they might still go to the voters again after such increase, Manager Marsella said, “There’s no guarantee.” Mention of a sunset for a sales tax is carefully silenced. Is there any doubt why many of the public are calling it a “boondoggle?”
As expected by all those following the process, the project quickly was short of revenue and over budget by a ten-digit figure each. The intentional or incompetent and ridiculous sales tax growth figure of 6.2% from the start very quickly resulted in a $2.8 billion shortfall. Thousands of dollars worth of taxable purchases have to be made to generate enough subsidy for each rider to make a single trip. For example, RTDs original estimate of the RT Boulder to Denver for one rider in 2004 was $37.58. In 2008 it was $120.88. Recent figures used by the Federal Transit Authority are a $60-$70 per rider cost for the average single light rail trip nationally. RTD claims it collects $1.08 average fare per rider. The U.S. average is $.87. RTD fares pay for 53% of operating cost, but when capital costs are included, fares pay for only 13%. The bus rapid transit (BRT) cost per rider is $18.42.
RTD claims they will reduce sales taxes to the figure needed to subsidize operating costs only, once construction is complete, but don’t mention a “sunset.” They ignore the fact that all the equipment and track has to be replaced each 30 years or less. Only the roadbed remains. Also, RTD says that they will have lots of money left over to improve the rail-supporting bus service. Actually they will have to seriously curtail bus service.
Across the country many transit lines continuously lose ridership. One transit problem is reminiscent of under-capitalization and over-expansion common in small businesses and temporarily successful retail chains, but on a larger scale. When a small upward blip of riders occurs, the line is extended. If there is a small recession, or lowered demand, the transit authority must default on bonds or curtail service to the point of rendering it inefficient. Randal O’Toole, in “Gridlock” mentions such failures in San Jose and St. Louis.
In hope of sidetracking talk about incompetence and intentional low-balling, officials used every excuse. Inability to forecast unexpected international copper and steel price increases was one. Amazingly, few other large projects suffered setback for such reason. Another manufactured excuse was that nobody thought of the need to indemnify the railroads for accident liability on shared rights of way, until an incident in Glendale, California a few years ago. A driver, intent on suicide, drove onto the track and was hit by a rail transit train. Eleven people were killed when the train left the track and the railroad that owned the track was held liable. This excuse is a lie. This writer was involved in discussions regarding establishment of commuter rail service on an existing rail line here many years ago, and the first item of concern was liability. Some recently involved in FasTracks planning were present. Whether part of the intentional low-balling of costs, or incompetence, this neglect has cost the taxpayer somewhere in the $300,000-$400,000 range additionally. Incidentally, there’s a recent book on the subject of rail transit lowballing.
It quickly became evident that every corridor was massively over the costs estimated for the major investment studies. Here in our corridor, the Gold Line serving Arvada and Wheat Ridge, a figure of $147.5 million was given to the public, for a line to downtown Golden. After passing through various permutations, it reached $281 million by the time of the election. It became $316 million, then a line half the length was presented at a cost of $463.5 million last year, then $590.5 million, with the amount changing almost weekly. Recently the figure was about $609 million. A Wadsworth Blvd. Bridge for the line, some of which is to be paid from Arvada taxes, was praised, while its $32 million cost was mentioned only in subdued tones. The total FasTracks cost was raised from $4.7 billion to $7.9 billion last year, then reduced to $7 billion. In other words, there’s no handle on costs and it almost seems as if figures are randomly chosen for publication.
Part of the funds are to be paid by local taxpayers. The figure set at the time of the ’04 FasTracks election was 2% of the cost of the system running through each community. All of a sudden, without explanation, it became 2.5%. When asked, RTD managers said, “It always was 2.5%, although you can see the publicized distribution of sources at the top of this article. An additional half a percent of a billion dollars can amount to more than chump-change. Some local officials don’t know where it will come from. Some say “in-kind services.” It will mean additional local taxes. At a major RTD presentation, the question about the local share was asked. A board member stated to the audience that there was no local share. RTD said, “We don’t have control over what they say.”
That’s some history to date. Following are the reasons why FasTracks and rail systems in general are inappropriate for this type of region, and why proponents keep pushing it. A 4th grade economics lesson: Never mentioned is the fact that billions will be taken out of the local economy for this project, and that a sales tax increase always hurts retailers and the tax is regressive to consumers. There was an insulting response to comments about this consideration by FTA during the EIS process. There is an attempt to convince the public that Keynesian mentality has merit. The multiplier effect on the economy and job creation is detailed, with data. The big lie by omission is that the money taken out of the economy to pay for this project has a downward multiplier spiral. Ignored is the loss of productive jobs and spending that would have been possible in the free market economy. Also, the construction jobs are temporary.
Another falsification regarding economics is the claim of major development along rail lines. The feds commissioned a study of this aspect by consultants. Findings were that development seen along rail routs is largely a moving of businesses within the same area, with little additional business. Also, commercial activity at light rail stations is largely marginal. An Ohio-Kentucky Council of Governments analysis concluded that rail does not significantly affect job accessibility for white, middle-class neighborhoods, but it causes a major reduction in accessibility for minorities. Los Angeles is also given as an example. L.A. minority groups have filed suit, claiming that rail worsens their situation.
FasTracks, as currently planned, will create 158 grade crossings and 2,000 dead ends. This seriously damages emergency vehicle response and creates traffic back-ups. The project was sold to the public with the promise that it would reduce congestion. Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), the group that generates data for the project, stated that it would reduce auto miles travelled by less than one half of one percent by the target year after completion. The actual figure was about 0.43%. Project consultants say that it can’t be forecast that closely and they consider effect on traffic congestion to be zero. To be fair, the traffic reduction during rush hour is predicted to be 1.4%.
Regardless of the exact figure, Denver area traffic grows more than FasTracks would reduce it, every 5 months. In spite of these facts, the public is being told that FasTracks will relieve congestion to the point that few new highways need not be built. The fact is that the state will need to spend billions on highways with or without FasTracks. Few want to use transit; they want you to use it! When the matter of negligible traffic reduction is mentioned, RTD staff and proponents give the rehearsed slogan, “It never was about traffic, it’s about choice,” neglecting to mention that no choice was given on the ballot.
Despite RTD statements that one rail line can carry as many as four freeway lanes (some proponents say 10 lanes), in only 5 U.S. cities do rail lines carry as many as half a freeway lane, and in only one, New York, the most highly concentrated work destination in the world, does the rail system carry as many as a single freeway lane. Most light rail typically carries one-sixth the people as does a freeway lane. One study gives a figure closer to one-fifth of a lane, with Denver’s predicted at less than a quarter of a lane. As far as speed comparisons are an issue, the light rail will average 24 mph and commuter trains 41, while bus rapid transit, the effective mode for this region, averages 51. RTDs manager stated in an article that a rail trip from Denver to Longmont, via Boulder, would take 61 minutes, while by car it takes 133 minutes from Denver to Boulder directly. It’s actually 35 minutes by car. He also said that the Boulder to Longmont segment will take 7 minutes. Seeing that it’s a 14 mile trip, the trains would have to greatly exceed 100. Plans call for the Boulder to Denver rail commute to take 54 minutes. The current bus ride is 28 minutes. High occupancy toll lanes (HOT) do much more for congestion. The new I-25 ones are much more successful than predicted and are paying their own way.
DRCOG predicts that by 2025, 2% of travel in this region will be by public transit. In the five U.S. cities with the most transit use, the figure is 3%. FasTracks will add 6 transit rides per year per metro resident.
A rail line costs far more to build than a freeway lane of the same distance. Another disconnect with commuters is the fact that lines radiate out of Union Station in downtown Denver, while more employment happens to be in Denver Tech. FasTracks doesn’t go where most people want to go. A rider from Arvada would drive to a station on the Gold Line, change trains at Union Station, and catch the circulating bus at Denver Tech to his workplace. Union Station, for decades a white elephant, and a less-than-marginal relationship to transportation, is being re-developed at additional expense to the Denver taxpayer, for the benefit of a few businesses. Also, there are many properties owned by RTD that have no transportation use. Taxpayer groups have filed suit.
FasTracks has appealed to the environmentally-minded by claiming that the reduction in traffic and electric trains will improve air quality. The only air quality problem in this region is ozone, the precursor of which is nitrous oxide (NO2). Data furnished by DRCOG on tons of each pollutant show that FasTracks will actually increase this NO2 by 2.66%. Other air pollutants are well below federal standards. Light rail in Denver uses more energy and produces more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average SUV. With trains that run empty and consume power at maximum power plant peak hour demand times, the negative impact would be enormous, regardless of RTDs claim of no environmental impact.
All Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports of the last several years show BRT as being more cost-effective than rail systems. All RTD analyses of FasTracks corridors found that BRT was more cost-effective than rail. DRCOG planners tell us the same. The average of 5 FasTracks lines shows the capital cost of light rail to be 2.5 times that of a BRT system. The operating costs averaged 2.8 times those of BRT. Speed of buses would be 2.2 times faster.
The State Constitution addresses eminent domain, with the first part requiring fair market value in a condemnation. The second part says the power of defining a public use is a judicial. Public use is traditionally is for roads, utility lines, public buildings, etc. Everyone is familiar with the new abuse of activist judges taking private property for the purpose of increasing tax income.
Property rights here have been nearly suspended in behalf of RTD. State Representatives Windels and Williams carried a bill that became law providing for as much as a 50% reduction in fair market value if part of your land is taken for a rail project. The theory is that the remainder of your property is enhanced by a train rumbling through every 15 minutes. This is not necessarily reserved for property near a light rail station that might have commercial value, and can be applied to residences.
RTD is using eminent domain to take land near stations for re-sale to high density housing and commercial developers. RTD has condemned Denver parcels for rail when only a few feet are needed, then sold the remainder to an industrial firm. These abuses occur after RTD has lied that they will use eminent domain only for a “primary transit purpose.”
Why, if there is almost nothing to be said for rail here, is the project so vigorously pushed? Why are more and more ridiculous and burdensome financial solutions presented, while proven efficient solutions are rejected? It’s happening because some with influence will benefit at the expense of the public. Developers or land speculators can purchase an option on land near a proposed light rail station, get a zone change for a very high density residential project by touting the “sprawl reduction,” then sell the land for a 1,000% profit. When not specifically for monetary gain, it is to satisfy the proliferation of “progressive housing” advocates, meaning very high-density, heavily subsidized housing. Their goal is socialized public housing. In this behalf, there was an all-day event at CU with a panel including officials from Boulder City Council, Boulder County Commissioners, Planning agencies, Sierra Club, etc. The outcome was a recommendation that a lane of every major road be demolished in order to purposely create more congestion. This would, it was hoped, convince people that they should live in high rise buildings and use rail transit.
“Progressive planners” in the City of Denver have adopted this policy by widening sidewalks into traffic lanes and in some cases, demolishing lanes. A recommendation by major environmental groups calls for a population of from 180,000 to 360,000 to reside within a half mile radius of a light rail station. If our arithmetic isn’t too poor, this is about 350 to 700 per acre. To put this in context, a typical Denver region residential subdivision houses maybe 20 to 25. Do people live in Colorado to occupy high-rises?
One of the major elements of the current U.S. administration is socialized housing. Transit with TOD is a means to that goal. In this behalf, when Transportation Secretary LaHood recently announced the latest federal bail-out grant for FasTracks a couple of months ago, he quoted President Obama, “Transportation grants are no longer to be related to commuting and people-moving, they are to be characterized as ‘development opportunities.’” (paraphrased). Those advocating TOD with low automobile use, especially as a means to achieve the very high density, subsidized housing of the progressive housing movement, are criticizing the more traditional park and ride with large parking lots at a rail stations. They ridicule park-and-ride as a viable transit solution, in favor of the Transit Alliance promotion of progressive housing.
The Denver Chamber of Commerce makes massive contributions to RTD rail and Transit Alliance TOD campaigns. Business people know that tax increases always hurt business, and that rail transit does very little for business, we suspect that a few involved with the RTD/TOD projects are dominating policy-making. Elected officials and planning students are taught that TOD is the method of smart growth that will prevent sprawl. Census data reveal that rail transit has done almost nothing to slow auto commuting or stem the movement of jobs to the suburbs.
As pointed out in the chapter “Rail Transit Hoax” in Randal O’Toole’s book The Best-Laid Plans, the example of Chicago is used. In the ‘90s urban area gained more than 300,000 new jobs. Nearly every worker drove. More than 400,000 transit commuters were lost, despite the massive rail transit system. The Washington D.C. area gained 100,000 new jobs, while losing 20,000 transit commuters. Some regions gained riders, but overall nationally there is a loss, which shows auto travel to be gaining. Major work destinations without rail transit, served by bus only, gained more than 53,000 commuters.
On August 24 Transit Alliance sent invitations to a tour of the West Corridor, highlighting “huge opportunity and investment in transit-oriented development.” The featured speaker was Catherine Cox Blair of the Center for TOD, which advocates “Leverage of public investment in transit for creating sustainable communities.” Regarding TOD, Randal O’Toole, writes, “This market is limited: surveys suggest more than 4 out of 5 Americans prefer a home with a yard to living near shops, transit, or jobs… Cities like Portland and Denver have had to resort to huge subsidies to entice developers to build more high-density developments, and the evidence indicates that the people who live in those developments drive just as much as people elsewhere.” In Portland, builder-subsidized multi-family buildings along rail transit are boarded up, even with big renter subsidies. A recent article claimed that renters were willing to pay more to live in some of Denver’s few TODs. In reality, renters were not competing for the units, but as these developments are mixed residential-commercial, the land is much more costly and higher rents are required for viable projects.
Although bus rapid transit (BRT) on High occupancy lanes (HOV), high occupancy toll lanes (HOT), express bus reserved lanes, and often on existing roads, are superior in most ways to rail, the public is told by RTD that “bus was taken off the table at the outset.” (of FasTracks planning). Also during the EIS process, FTA and RTD staff say that “bus has a stigma with the public.” There may be some truth to this. Buses generally are not as exciting as trains, but the capital and operating costs of rail are prohibitive, as the comparisons above show.
In addition to the declining riderships mentioned above, many newer rail transit systems around the country are major financial disasters. A Seattle project is costing $220 million per mile. The San Jose rail expansion is a $6.2 billion fiasco that goes nowhere. Here in Denver there doesn’t seem to be any handle on FasTracks costs, but at $8 billion, it would amount to about $67 million per mile, plus the debt service. The plan promised to the public in ’04 featured a 30 year bond of $2.366 billion with a $7.129 billion in debt service, of 3 times the principle amount. Recent finance plans may have a higher interest rate because of non-investment rating of bonds. The ’04 ballot limits total RTD debt to $3.477 billion but they now predict a yearly 2.83% increase in revenue instead of the former absurd 6.2%. This figure also is likely to be over- optimistic, with revenue growth probably being negative.
Before fed grants are given for specific projects, there is a requirement for the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) to hold hearings to solicit testimony and comments for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), with the participation of RTD. Viable alternatives are to be considered. When questions have been answered, the final statement (FEIS) is issued, followed by the fed approval Record of Decision (ROD) which releases funds if available. Serious consideration of alternatives was not done for any of the corridors examined so far, with lip service given at best, with such comments by the public ignored more than once for the Gold Line project. These are not, as the titles might suggest, limited to what are generally considered as related to issues of the environment, but cover a wide range of items.
An insulting response to public EIS comments was that BRT would require upgrading of sections of I-70, which would have negative impact on minorities. This amounts to playing the “race card” without any explanation of impacts or why only certain groups would be impacted, or a definition of minorities in this context.
Just before the EIS process, RTD held meetings where the public was invited to choose among four time-cost schedules. These ranged from immediate construction of all lines with a 0.4% (maybe 0.6%) tax increase, with some service by 2016, to the slowest completion… as funds became available without a tax increase, to take until about year 2042. The majority chose the quickest schedule requiring the additional sales tax. The important point of these meetings and opinion solicitations was that there were no mode alternatives discussed or offered, regardless of the fact that BRT is widely considered viable. The “choices” were limited to length of time for project completion.
Meetings and presentations by RTD and local proponents carefully limit discussion to minutiae, with any mention of basics, such as alternate modes, quickly cut off. Items such as station landscaping, station rest rooms, bicycles on trains and lengths of platforms are discussed. As an example, at a meeting last fall, 1 hour and 17 minutes was spent discussing train whistles. No transit basics were mentioned. It was common at these meetings to hear comments without value, such as: “I don’t care what it costs. Even if it takes one car off the road, it’s worth it.” Or: “I’m for it because my kid might like to take a train to the ball game.” At larger assemblies, volunteers are split into small groups, each assigned to a minor item or part of a corridor. This is designed to avoid any consensus on major issues that might conflict with pre-determined plans. The 22 pre-election meetings were dominated by recruited hecklers who cut short expert opinions. When legitimate transit planners and engineers speak, they are sometimes called “Nazis.”
The campaign for another tax increase, probably in 2012, has quietly begun. The same arrangements as for the ’04 election are in place. CRL Associates, run by Maria Garcia Berry, with assistance of Roger Sherman and other P.R. types, had nearly $4 million for the “FasTracks Yes!” campaign. This was characterized by feel-good slogans, misrepresentations and an absence of the facts necessary to make a rational decision. RTD spent about $300,000 on glossy inserts to the newspapers in violation of campaign laws. Twenty-two local cities illegally contributed taxpayer money to the FasTracks campaign through Transit Alliance, which gets away with tax exempt status, while acting as a PAC and recruiting for CRL. Our city, Arvada, has contributed some $61,200.
Thirty-five consultants and other firms, some receiving no-bid contracts, contributed $543,000. RTD Board of Directors recently gave a massive no-bid contract to the Siemens Corp. This was with the knowledge that Siemens had been kicked off and fined $300 million on a $650 million project for bribery. Also known by the Board was the matter of an audit of Siemens revealing a slush fund, called unusual transactions (bribery), of $2.3 billion. Rumors relating to this are disturbing. Much larger contributions can be expected from pay-to-play firms in the next round.
Supporters of FasTracks fall into two categories: Those who haven’t enough knowledge of the plan to make a rational choice, including many public officials, and those with personal agendas. The latter includes those on payrolls of rail- related organizations, RTD, consultants and contractors, investors in land and developers. ’04 Secretary of State records of first contributions: Downtown Denver Partnership/C of C: $510,000 Parsons-Brinkerhoff: $130,000 Siemens: $101,000 CH2M Hill: $65,000 Carter-Burgess: $50,000 Evans: $30,000 URS: $30,000 LTK: $30,000 DMJM: $25,000 Alvarado: $25,000 Colorado Rail Car: $20,000 PBS&J: $19,000
Note that most of these received multi-million contracts, some no-bid! The RTD Board includes several members who have graduated from the Citizens’ Academy, and who use that as a credential when campaigning for a Board seat. Conflicts of interest abound. The chairman, whose conflict of interest was being in the rail equipment business, had his RTD Board bio changed to “self employed” to hide this fact. Long-time RTD manager Cal Marsella, apparently sensing the disaster, bailed out several months ago and received a $300,000 bonus.
The public should be aware that this fraudulent project can only be stopped by cutting off the money. There is disagreement among proponents as to whether the next ballot should be sneaked through in an off-election year, or should be in the year 2012 when there will be a very large voter turn-out. The latter seems to prevail. It behooves voters to become thoroughly educated so as to be able to make a rational decision on this perpetual drain on the economy, while planning for efficient Denver region transit languishes.
Good sources of further info: Gridlock by Randal O’Toole The Best Laid Plans by Randal O’Toole Light Rail and Heavy Politics by Jack McCroskey Archives of the Independence Institute
Tom Graham of Arvada (TransitAnalysis@aol.com) was on transit study teams for Rochester and Amherst Corridor, NY; Metro Toronto Area; and Fairbanks, Alaska; and was director of the Iran National Transportation Study. He was partner in Civil Engineers of Alaska and Alaska Energy Coordinator. He was project manager for Beaver Creek resort and Wadsworth Town Center redevelopment. Tom holds engineering, community planning, and industrial development degrees, and is a licensed real estate broker.
If you’ve registered a vehicle lately, you may be suffering from mild sticker shock, but don’t blame the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Editor's Note: The author is Arapahoe County Clerk & Recorder.
The Legislature passed—and Gov. Ritter signed into law—SB09-108 known as the FASTER measure. It was co-sponsored by Democrats, Sen. Dan Gibbs and Rep. Joe Rice.
It adds about $32 a year to the average registration fee to pay for “Road and Bridge Safety Surcharges”—none dare call it a tax. But wait, there’s more! You used to be able to get by with a $10 late fee if you exceeded the 30 day grace period when renewing your registration. Now, it’s $25 a month, month after month, up to a maximum $100. Got an old boat trailer you take out once or twice a year? Or a hauler you run to the dump with once in awhile. You’d better send that registration card in on time, or you may end up paying more than the vehicle’s worth to re-register if you are late.
You say, “Thirty-two dollars here, and twenty-five dollars there doesn’t sound like a lot of money?” But here are the numbers: Arapahoe County collected $340,000 in late fees in the month of June (the county retained $67,720 and $272,425 was forwarded to the State). And we’re only one of 64 counties collecting these fees! The Governor’s Office has expressed its intention to address this legislation and its consequences in 2010, but in the mean time we must continue collecting the fees as directed by law, and anyone registering late will just have to pay.
Now some would question, “Why impose another regressive tax in the middle of the worst recession in 70 years?” Have the bridges escaped the Legislature’s attention until just this very minute? Have we, then, been driving on unsafe roadways all along? Will the fees sunset or be eliminated after the bridges and roads are repaired? Don’t bet on it. And are these new fees really taxes that should have been voted up or down by the taxpayers? And finally, what about the windfall federal stimulus money that Colorado has also received for roads?
These are all good questions. However, please “don’t shoot the messenger”. The motor vehicle clerks at the front counters in every county clerk’s office in the state have had to explain these fee increases to customers. As agents of the state, they have had to endure irate drivers who take out their frustrations on them. The Denver Post’s recent editorial stated that threats made by unhappy customers in the DMV offices are unacceptable. I agree. Maybe it’s time to e-mail your senator and representative and ask them:
“Why this, why right now and why no vote by the taxpayers?”
RTD and its Fastracks rail system are a mess. In his June 11 radio special, John Andrews asked why. The podcast is now up. As you remember, a big tax increase was proposed, then postponed. RTD’s general recently quit and left town. So what put this thing so far over budget? If we raise taxes again, what reason is there to trust the agency for this time? And what are the affordable alternatives for metro mobility that special interests ignore?
Click here to listen to "Under the Dome: RTD Off the Rails." This is John's hour-long conversation with State Rep. Spencer Swalm, a specialist in market solutions for transportation... Kevin Holst, Denver attorney and citizen activist... and Jon Caldara, former RTD board chairman who's now president of the Independence Institute.
It's the latest in our monthly series on key issues for Coloradans.