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That's what she said

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Poll: Public Transit Options for the Northwest Corridor


1909 postcard "Denver & Interurban R.R., 12th St., Boulder, Colo." (Carnegie Library)

At a PLAN-Boulder County forum on March 19, 2012, the majority of a panel of current and former local officials concurred on the need for more details and guarantees from RTD with respect to its recent “hybrid” proposal for transit in the Northwest Corridor, while the panelist from Longmont argued forcefully for the implementation of the original commuter rail plan by 2024.

The panel consisted of Karen Benker, a former member of the Longmont City Council and a former RTD board member from District M, Audrey De Barros, the executive director of 36 Commuting Solutions (a non-profit organization of governments and businesses along US 36 that promotes effective transit), John Tayer, RTD Board member from District O (which covers all of Boulder County, except for Longmont and the eastern sliver of the County south of Longmont), and Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor.

The FasTracks plan passed by the voters in the Denver metropolitan region in 2004  included both commuter service on the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line to Longmont and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service on US 36 to Boulder. Light-rail lines on almost all parts of the promised RTD system—the Southeast, Southwest, I-225, East and West Corridors, and the Gold Line—have been or are being built. However, no concrete progress has occurred on rail service in the Northwest Corridor to Longmont, nor the North Metro Corridor, which is projected to run through Northglenn and terminate at 162nd Street. RTD’s estimates of the cost of commuter rail to Longmont have increased over the years. But at the end of last year it announced to widespread public dismay that the cost had suddenly ballooned from $894.6 million to $1.7 billion.

For several years RTD staff has recognized that the .4 percent sales and use tax authorized in 2004 would not generate enough revenue to finish the promised system for decades—even before the “bombshell” about the cost of the Northwest Rail Corridor was dropped. So discussions have been occurring for some time about a ballot issue to authorize an additional sales and use tax to complete FasTracks.

After the bombshell burst, and with an eye to a possible 2012 RTD sales and use tax ballot issue, RTD staff proposed three options for the Northwest Corridor:

  1. Complete the Northwest Rail line by 2024
  2. Complete the Northwest Rail line by 2024, but before then implement a form of BRT on US 36
  3. Abandon the Northwest Rail line and instead spend $894.6 million on “expanded/enhanced” BRT in the Northwest Corridor

The public reaction to these options was mixed and generally unfavorable. So on March 5 the RTD staff proposed a “hybrid” plan that included the following elements:

  • A commitment to provide a Northwest Rail line all the way to Longmont by some unspecified future date
  • Northwest Rail line to Church Ranch Boulevard in Westminster by 2022
  • Up to 80 miles of some form of BRT along US 36 to Boulder and then a loop to and from Longmont using the Boulder-Longmont Diagonal, US 287 and South Boulder Road

At the March 19 forum De Barros declared that neither 36 Commuting Solutions, nor the US 36 coalition of mayors and commissioners was either supporting or opposing any of options proposed by RTD. She reported that 36 Commuting Solutions had recently submitted a list of questions to RTD about its options, including when the remaining segments of commuter rail would be completed under its “hybrid” option, what, if any, limits on capital expenditures it would adopt, whether bi-directional HOV lanes would be established on I-25, and what guarantees RTD would offer about various elements of its options.

RTD FasTracks Plan (courtesy John Tayer)

Toor similarly asserted that the Boulder County Commissioners were neutral about the options at this time. He called for detailed studies by RTD about many aspects of its proposals, including the development potential of BRT stations as compared to that of commuter rail stations. Toor also stated that the Boulder County Commissioners are demanding equity between the transit programs in the various RTD corridors and assurances that, in the event of future dips in RTD sales and use tax collections, the funds  for capital improvements will be distributed fairly among the corridors.

Toor declared that his only personal interest is now simply to create the most effective and politically feasible commuter transit system for Boulder County with the resources available. He remarked that he has used several BRT systems, including one of the first ones in the world in Curitiba, Brazil, and believes that they can be as fast, comfortable and convenient as modern subways. He observed that the frequency of service and the number of stops on commuter rail lines is usually limited, and he claimed that frequency of service would be particularly problematic on BNSF’s line from Denver to Longmont because of heavy freight traffic. Toor also contended that so-called “transit oriented development” might occur as easily around BRT stations as around rail stations, and cited the progress of the city of Boulder’s Boulder Junction re-development project as support for his view.

Toor recounted that he had served on a commission in 1996 which proposed both commuter rail on the BNSF line and BRT for Boulder County. He said that the commission concluded that BRT would provide the bulk of transit service used by people in the City of Boulder and to its south and east, but that commuter rail should be offered, as well, because it would be relatively cheap and fast to implement. The commission estimated that commuter rail would cost about $170 million to start and that it could be established in a couple of years, transporting commuters to Denver while lanes on US 36 were being built for BRT. Toor noted the current irony of the commission’s 1996 expectations.

Toor also warned against the dangers of relying on the opinions of experts and of politicans (presumably, including even himself). He asserted that before the 2004 FasTracks vote, legions of expert consultants examined and endorsed RTD’s cost  and revenue projections, and then scores of politicians around the area joined the chorus. He did not have to remind the audience that those projections turned out to be embarrassingly inaccurate.

Tayer explained that the costs of Northwest rail had exploded largely because BNSF now insists that the existing track be re-built and that a second track be constructed along the whole route to Longmont, as well as additional sidetracks and sophisticated signal systems. He said BNSF maintains that these extensive, additional improvements are required by new federal regulations which were precipitated by the fairly recent crash of a commuter train in Los Angeles. Toor remarked that he did not believe that BNSF was “seeking rents” when it calculated the cost of the Northwest commuter rail.

When asked by an audience member why RTD had not obtained a cost commitment from BNSF shortly after the 2004 tax was authorized, Tayer replied that it probably should have. When asked by another audience member whether RTD should simply build its own light rail line on another alignment, Tayer responded that there simply would not be enough time before a ballot issue this fall to plan such a line. Toor commented that the need to condemn property for such a new line might make it both costly and unpopular.

Benker, who supports RTD’s option 2, argued passionately that Longmont voters had expected commuter rail service to their community when they voted in favor of FasTracks in 2004 by a substantial majority and that the original promise must be fulfilled as moral matter—and a political one. She predicted that an additional RTD sales and use tax ballot issue will lose heavily in Boulder County if commuter rail service is not provided by RTD in the foreseeable future.

1908 Denver & Interurban at the Boulder Depot (Carnegie Library)

She claimed that trains have a broader appeal than buses and that many people who will happily ride a train will not step on a bus. She also noted that Longmont, Louisville, Westminster, and the city of Boulder have counted on significant “transit oriented development” projects around their anticipated commuter rail stations, and she contended that developers will simply not invest to the same degree in projects anchored by a BRT station.

Benker reported that RTD board chairman Lee Kemp had recently disclosed to Longmont officials that under the “hybrid proposal” commuter rail service would not reach Longmont until 2028 or 2034. She said that she found his prediction to be both unacceptably vague and unacceptably remote in time.  She noted that Kemp had acknowledged that short extensions of both the Southeast and the Southwest Corridors are expected to be completed by RTD at a cost of about $350 million in the next several years. She decried the apparent unfairness of spending further money on those corridors before commuter rail service is introduced in the Northwest Corridor.

Benker also contended that commuter rail service to Longmont would be a better long-range transit solution than BRT. She asserted that transportation planners envision frequent passenger rail service some day between Denver and Fort Collins and Cheyenne and commented that such service would have to pass through Longmont.

Benker noted that in a recent meeting with the Longmont City Council RTD executive director Phil Washington had been remarkably vague about the kind of BRT service that Longmont would receive under the “hybrid” proposal. The other panelists concurred with her that “Bus Rapid Transit” can mean many different things, and that RTD must clarify what it intends by the term. De Barros commented that RTD has no experience or even familiarity with BRT and that it unfortunately declined to participate in a trip to Los Angeles in 2011 to inspect a robust BRT system operating in a part of that city.

1941 Denver & Interurban bus in front of the original Daily Camera building (Carnegie Library)

Experts generally seem to agree that first-class BRT service functions similarly to a light rail system, except that the vehicles ride on rubber tires instead of metal wheels. In such a system, specially-built buses drive in center lanes dedicated exclusively to them. Passengers enter the buses from stations in the center of the highway, so that the buses do not have to turn out of their lanes. The stations have platforms so that passengers do not have to step up or down when entering or leaving the vehicles. The buses are comfortable and feature wide doors which can handle a heavy volume of passengers quickly. Tickets are sold from machines in the stations so that the bus drivers do not need to spend time counting tokens or making change.

Benker also pointed out that massive cost overruns have occurred in every other corridor in the FasTracks plan and that it would be unfair to penalize the Northwest Corridor, and not the others, for RTD’s inaccurate estimates.

The unfairness of the current situation to the people in the Northwest Corridor was agreed upon by all the panelists. Toor, though, noted that several, if not all, of the other corridors had qualified for federal aid, while the Northwest Corridor has not. He commented that while he felt that the result was unfair, he, too–if he had been on the RTD board– probably would have voted to build light rail in the other corridors using the available federal largess.

Tayer stated that a trip on the Northwest commuter rail will probably require a subsidy of $36, while a trip on light rail in most of the other corridors requires a subsidy of about $12. He said that the greatly increased subsidy was caused by the relatively long length of the Northwest rail line and the relatively low population served. De Barros contended that the expense per passenger mile is more reasonable way to calculate relative costs and that by that measurement the Northwest corridor would be much closer in operating costs to the other corridors.

Tayer indicated that he currently favors RTD’s “hybrid” proposal, although he, too, wants various aspects of it to be clarified by the staff. He said that he had encountered many people in District O who want BRT, but do not care about commuter rail. He stated that he believes the hybrid would be the best way to satisfy those voters.

Tayer asserted that if a ballot issue for additional sales and use tax is not submitted to the voters this fall, it would probably not be submitted for many years in the future. De Barros said that Governor Hickenlooper has indicated he would discourage such a ballot issue in 2014, when he plans to run for re-election, and that experts generally believe that such a ballot issue would fail in the “off-year” election of 2013. The panelists speculated that in time as the light rail systems in the other corridors are all completed, voters in the Denver metropolitan area outside of the Northwest and North corridors will lose the incentive they may now have to pass an additional tax.

Tayer termed the prospects for the Northwest Corridor “a dark universe” if such a tax is not approved this fall. He speculated that Northwest commuter rail service would not occur until after 2040. He also surmised that business interests would try to finish the light rail in the I-225 Corridor and short extensions of the Southeast and Southwest Corridors with private funds.

Toor noted, however, that funds to build a relatively primitive form of BRT on US 36 up to 88th Street have already been cobbled together from the federal government, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and RTD.  Toor expressed optimism that the federal government might contribute additional funds to extend this service to Table Mesa in Boulder by 2015.

A relatively large audience attended the forum and directed lots of questions at the panel. Many audience members expressed anger at RTD for breaking its promise in 2004 to build the entire FasTracks system within a reasonable time period, and several of them exhorted the panelists to demand commuter rail service for the Northwest Corridor.

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