In 2004 voters in Denver’s Northwest Corridor approved raising a regional 0.4 percent sales tax, generating $894.6 million to build a Commuter Rail Transit (CRT) line known as the Northwest Rail Line by 2017. The proposed 41-mile diesel, 7-station diesel-powered (non-electric light rail) CRT would start at Denver’s Union Station and would have stations in Westminster, Walnut Creek, Broomfield, Louisville, Boulder, Gunbarrel and Longmont. The Northwest Rail Line is one piece of a larger regional transit program known as FasTracks. Now, eight years later, Denver’s Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) estimated completion date stands at 2042, unless voters approve another tax increase bringing the cost up to $1.7 billion for completion by 2024.
Overall FasTracks is a multi-billion dollar transit expansion program that aims to ultimately comprise of 122 miles of CRT and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT) and 21,000 new complementary parking spaces across eight counties. When voters approved FasTracks it was projected to cost $4.7 billion - these estimates have proven to be totally inaccurate. FasTracks’ system-wide capital costs increased again in last year’s annual program evaluation, this time by $968.3 million, to a new total of $7.8 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars. Eighty-five percent of last year's increase came from revising Northwest Rail Line cost projections.
In light of recent cost revisions the RTD Board of Directors is weighing three options for how to proceed with the rest of the Northwest Rail Line. This decision will have a major impact on the Northwest Corridor—and RTD’s larger FasTracks program—that will be felt for generations to come.
All three options assume a successful FasTracks sales tax election in 2012. This is a big assumption that should not be overlooked. The RTD Board is currently weighing doubling the 0.4 percent regional sales tax that voters approved in 2004 in order to finish the Northwest Rail Line. This tax increase was approved in a distinctly different economic climate.
If raising taxes is the way RTD is seeking funding for FasTracks projects, it may find opposition. For example last fall Colorado voters faced Proposition 103 that would have raised taxes by an estimated $2.9 billion for education spending. Prop. 103 was overwhelmingly defeated, losing by nearly 40 percentage points (63.2-36.8) and failing in 62 out of 64 counties (passing in Boulder and San Miguel Counties). Boulder County was the only county in the Northwest Corridor to approve Prop 103 But it’s difficult to predict how voters in other Counties might respond to the RTD measure in 2012. If the tax increase is placed on the ballot and is rejected by voters—or is not put on the ballot at all—then the entire FasTracks program will not be complete until 2042.
Assuming the RTD tax increase is placed on the ballot and is approved by voters, the RTD Board will select and implement one of the following three options for the Northwest Rail Line:
- Option 1: RTD would complete the Northwest Rail Line as planned and extend the expected completion date from 2020 to 2024. Based on RTD estimates it appears Option 1 would cost taxpayers an estimated $1.7 billion for projected completion by 2024.
- Option 2: Like Option 1, RTD would complete the Northwest Rail Line as planned and extend the expected completion date from 2020 to 2024. RTD would simultaneously accelerate construction of select capital projects (like new RTD Park-N-Ride locations) and provide interim bus service for the Northwest Rail Line and U.S. 36 Rapid Transit Corridor Areas until the rail is complete. Once the commuter rail is finished, interim bus service would be rerouted to transport riders to/from the seven CRT stations. Finally, Option 2 would postpone the completion of six other FasTracks projects by approximately six months each, in essence prioritizing completing the Northwest Rail Line over the rest of the system. Based on RTD estimates it appears Option 2 would cost taxpayers an estimated $1.7 billion for projected completion by 2024.
- Option 3: In contrast to Options 1 and 2, Option 3 would replace the Northwest Rail Line with an expanded and enhanced BRT system. The Northwest BRT would operate in high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes along U.S. 36 and State Highway 119 and with transit priority on non-freeway routes. Additional enhancements include off-board fare collection, signal priority, and bus bypass lanes at intersections. Similar to the Northwest Rail Line, BRT would have established stations along the route with complementary parking infrastructure. Based on RTD estimates it appears Option 3 would cost taxpayers $894.6 million for projected completion by 2020, which would also be capped thereby limiting taxpayer liability.
Option 3 appears to be the most prudent choice for policymakers, as evidenced by a fact sheet issued by RTD last month. BRT would be completed in 2020, four years earlier than CRT in 2024. BRT would offer service anywhere from three to six times more frequently than CRT during peak hours, and four times more frequently than CRT during off-peak hours. Estimated travel time for longer trips is comparable between BRT and CRT, while BRT allows for more frequent stops along the way. In the short run, BRT costs the same amount originally approved by voters ($894.6 million), whereas CRT costs nearly double ($1.7 billion). In the long run, BRT would require lower annual operation and maintenance costs than CRT would.
Prudence aside, RTD cannot unilaterally change the use of the tax and debt authorized for the FasTracks plan. Voters approved completing CRT for $894.6 million by 2014 and neither the dollar amount nor the time frame will be met. Regardless of which option the RTD Board selects they will need to seek voter approval before proceeding. If voters reject the ballot measure—or if RTD decides to not pursue a tax increase—then the FasTracks system is estimated to be complete by 2042.
Pauletta Tonilas, a spokeswoman for FasTracks, effectively framed the conversation with the Boulder Daily Camera saying the goal is to find the option that would provide the “most service to the most people to get them to the most places.” With that in mind, it will be interesting to see which option the RTD Board selects.
Harris Kenny is a Denver-based policy analyst at Reason Foundation (reason.org), a nonpartisan public policy think tank.