Denver’s RTD Abandons Tax Hike for FasTracks

Monte Whaley of The Denver Post reports:

A FasTracks proposal to link commuters in the northwest Denver metro area to downtown is stalled after the Regional Transportation District (RTD) board of directors decided Tuesday night not to pursue a tax increase in November that would fund the idea.

All 12 members of the RTD board said the timing is wrong for any kind of tax hike—which would have gone for to all unfunded and partially funded corridors—and there still remains too many questions about the plan.

This vote shelves an ongoing conversation about solving surface transportation needs in the Denver metropolitan area. In this piece I highlight two motivating factors behind their decision, and offer three takeaways for what to expect moving forward.

First, for those unfamiliar, I outlined the context of this vote in a commentary last month:

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…

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.

Fast forward to spring 2012: FasTracks costs ballooned from $4.7 up to $7.4 billion and the system is not expected to be complete until 2042. Last year alone FasTracks’ system-wide capital costs increased by $968.3 million and eighty five percent of that increase came from the Northwest Rail Line. The RTD Board of Directors weighed four options for the Northwest Rail Line that all hinged on ballot placement, and voter approval, doubling the initial FasTracks regional sales tax from 0.4 percent up to 0.8 percent. They pursued—and ultimately abandoned—a hybrid option prepared by the RTD staff that would have provided supplemental BRT from Westminster to Longmont until CRT was complete.

The RTD Board of Directors essentially punted on making a decision by abandoning the tax hike for the hybrid option, and they were primarily motivated by two factors.

  1. It’s uncertain whether or not voters would approve a tax increase this fall. For example, last fall voters rejected Proposition 103, which would have collected an estimated $3 billion in tax revenue for education, by nearly 40 points. Gov. John Hickenlooper famously described the state of the electorate last fall saying, “There’s no appetite for taxes anywhere, all over the state.” In addition to their analysis and public outreach, RTD reportedly conducted telephone polling to gauge voter willingness to support a tax increase and they likely weren’t encouraged by the results.
  2. Several board members expressed concern over the ambiguity of the proposed hybrid option. Board member John Tayer was quoted in The Denver Post saying, “I will not support going forward… until we have a specific plan and a specific time frame.”

This vote is only a temporary setback, as the Board explains in a press release:

RTD will continue to work aggressively to seek alternative funding sources for the program including grants, public-private partnerships and unsolicited proposals. The Board will continue to explore pursuing a sales and use tax election in the future when the time is right for the region.

There are three takeaways from this vote by the RTD Board of Directors.

  1. It’s only a matter of time before another revenue raising ballot measure is discussed for the Northwest Rail Line. Stakeholders along the corridor have expressed continued dismay over the fact that full service won’t be provided until 2042 at the earliest.
  2. This may open the door for more innovative alternatives. Initial cost and completion projections have been totally inaccurate throughout FasTracks with the exception of one aspect: the Eagle P3 Project. The Eagle P3 project is a 34-year design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) public-private partnership signed with Denver Transit Partners in July 2010. As mentioned above, RTD has signaled willingness to pursue similar public-private partnerships in their efforts to complete the line. RTD currently evaluating an unsolicited proposal for rail along I-225.
  3. Finally, with more time, it’s likely that officials will be convinced of the merits of BRT. A recently launched global database on BRT systems demonstrates their efficacy in 134 cities around the world carrying over 22.4 million passengers daily. U.S. BRT leaders include New York City, Pittsburgh and Boston. The Board considered BRT prior to choosing the hybrid option. Compared to the CRT option, the BRT option would have offered: an earlier competion date, more frequent on-peak and off-peak service and more frequent stops; while offering comparable travel times, costing half as much in the short run and requiring lower annual operation and maintenance costs in the long run.

This project is one to watch in the coming months and years ahead because RTD has signaled interest in the types of innovative alternatives that would meaningfully address the Denver metropolitan area’s surface transportation needs—before 2042 and beyond.

For more on the Northwest Rail Line and FasTracks, see my previous posts here and here.