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Denver FasTracks Problems Expose Complexities of Building Transit at the Regional Scale

Denver Planned Transit Network» Fears of underinvestment for the north metro could doom plans for a sales tax increase.

Denver has one of the most ambitious public transportation expansion programs in the country, with six new train corridors, two rail extensions, and one bus rapid transit line planned. Taking advantage of the region’s decision to endorse a 0.4% sales tax in 2004, the RTD transit agency has engaged rapidly to promote its multi-billion-dollar FasTracks project. Yet, with cost increases and sales tax revenue declines, the metropolitan area will likely not be getting the proposal as initially promised — at least not by 2017, as originally claimed.

Politicians and citizens from the northern section of the region are crying foul, arguing that their neighborhoods are being pushed to the back of the priority list. If they continue to pay sales taxes, they argue, they should receive new transportation capital investments in return. Yet compared to projects in the southern half of the region, the planned North and Northwest Corridors are underperforming and therefore may be sacrificed first by an RTD hopeful to win federal funds contingent on cost-effectiveness.

Denver’s problems are illustrative of the complications faced by any transit agency attempting to plan at a regional scale and raise questions about how such organizations should operate. Notably, can denser areas make a claim for more transit access, when all parts of the region are paying into the budget? Is there any chance of losing the support of urban constituents if too much money is spent on the outskirts of town? Should transit be designed to serve long-distance commuting to and from suburbs, or should it focus on encouraging travel in the inner-city?

If Denver’s proposed expansion is at the extreme of U.S. transit programs, its difficulties, caused by the recession and inflation in construction costs, are not. RTD’s original plan suggested that FasTracks would require $4.7 billion to complete, but the project’s costs have ramped up to $7 billion according to the most recent estimates. In order to save the program, regional leaders have suggested asking citizens to double the sales tax to 0.8% in an election planned for 2011 or 2012.

But North Area Transportation Alliance members, who decry the RTD as mismanaged and insist on making transit investments that will benefit each section of the region, suggest that the agency needs a plan B — after all, there is no guarantee that voters will agree to increase their own taxes. This is especially true if residents of the southern parts of the area, who already benefit from light rail, see no need to increase taxes since they will see no marginal benefit. Meanwhile, if lower overall revenue resulted in the RTD having to cut the northern projects from the drawing board, what benefit will people from those areas gain from their taxation? As Cheryl Hauger, a member of the Alliance, suggested in the Boulder Daily Camera:

“This was sold to us as a regional system, and we’ve been paying these taxes just like everybody on the south side of the metro area… We’re trying to make sure that we get our fair share.”

RTD’s plans thus far seem to indicate that only the West Corridor light rail line (currently under construction) and the East Corridor commuter rail line to the airport (planned for a start next year) are ensured for completion. Other lines would be built depending on available funds, including potential private investment. The Alliance suggests that a better strategy would be to work on every line, building out from the center, rather than corridor-by-corridor. Nonetheless, the RTD has dismissed those assertions, claiming that the Alliance is less-than-fully supported by officials from the area and that the agency will ultimately be able to cobble together the necessary funds to build the whole project. Despite lower-than-expected revenues, the RTD’s public bond releases remain reasonably well rated.

Even so, the push for a plan B in case of a failure to assemble the necessary revenues seems like a good idea for Denver and all transit systems embarking on major capacity expansion programs. It would allow such agencies to be better prepared in the event of fewer funds and to adjust their spending to prioritize the most important investments.

The problem, of course, is that authorities such as the RTD are incapable of making such priority lists without threatening the stability of the regional compromise that formed the agency in the first place. Though Denver’s light rail has paid off handsomely since the first line opened 15 years ago, people in areas that remain without lines will begin to feel shirked if their money is being spent purely on the mobility of people elsewhere. It is difficult, in other words, to argue for a regional transit funding system unless the benefits, too, are regional. This is very hard to do during recessionary periods, since governments simply cannot afford to pay for everything at the same time.

Just as problematic from this perspective is the fact that attempting to spend for the purpose of achieving geographic equity ultimately means less investment for the purpose of achieving transportation equity. Said differently, if RTD were to focus its spending for the purposes of serving all areas of the region, it might pursue the spending plan outlined by the Alliance, in which partial sections of each line heading in every direction would be built. On the other hand, if RTD were to prioritize improving transportation access for the most number of people possible at the lowest cost, it would undoubtedly aim towards implementing the lines in the southern section of the region, since those are likely to be more cost effective and carry more people.

Intertwined with these two options are questions of what kind of mobility RTD wants to provide: should it focus on transporting people 41 miles from exurban Longmont to downtown Denver on the Northwest Corridor at peak hours, or should it advantage urbanites moving 4/5ths of a mile along the Central Corridor, using light rail as a local circulator at all times of day? With limited funds, an investment strategy must be picked, but no choice will ever be fully acceptable to everyone.

If Denver’s situation is likely to put the RTD in a bind, especially if it chooses the politically more difficult choice of ignoring the needs of the northern section of the region, the impulse by Alliance members to claim that they are being taxed with no resulting benefit should be avoided. Regional equity in transportation is rare and not always advantageous for the population as a whole. And after all, for decades, the roads system has required huge spending from general taxpayer funds, but its advantages have gone primarily to the suburbs. Is it acceptable now to promote public policy that does just the opposite, or is it time for officials to work for a regional, geography-based compromise?

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Rocky start

    Good article. The obvious first compromise is to shelve one of the duplicating NW services until a 2nd phase. Delaying the Longmont commuter rail is probably the best option. The SW and SE extensions should be next on the list for delay. Because they are so short I have a hard time believing that they are going to bring that many new riders. Those extensions seem to be more about increased convenience and TOD potential. Perhaps use the delay (if needed) to leverage higher developer contributions from any TOD projects, though with the market likely to be down for a long time that may not be possible.

  • Perhaps instead of building all the southern rail projects and ignoring the needs elsewhere, they could scale down the planned projects to something like BRT and build them out as promised, with a plan to convert to rail later when the funding becomes available. The truth is that a system that services only the suburbs – in many regions, serving the constituents that hold the purse-strings rather than the more transit-dependent riders – makes the system less valuable overall by reducing the reach and frequency of transit. A better system would have wider coverage overall, with an emphasis on frequent and reliable service where it is available, and serving suburban commuters as possible.

    This problem also serves to illustrate the dangers of tying the expansion or operation of transit to a volatile sales tax rather than a more stable, secure, and permanent funding source.

  • “Perhaps instead of building all the southern rail projects and ignoring the needs elsewhere, they could scale down the planned projects to something like BRT and build them out as promised, with a plan to convert to rail later when the funding becomes available.”

    ———————–

    No. BRT is a lesser form of transit than LRT, in both capacity and ride quality.

    People are not stupid. No region or area would or should accept BRT as a compromise for fear of being stuck with it, even after good economic times return, as they will have to compete with other “new” areas wanting to be part of the system versus spending money to upgrade what the system already has.

  • Brett

    What needs to happen is the longmont commuter rail gets delayed, as will the 2 southern LRT extensions. BRT is not feasible because the north corridors are on existing, ACTIVE, rail corridors, so it can not be torn up and used as a bus system. However, I believe that the other corridors can be built in the first phase, construction costs have dropped dramatically in this recession. If the sales tax gets passed (to be voted on next year, by the way), then good. But I believe that RTD needs to at least create a plan B.

  • Thad

    I agree with Dan about not parring down to BRT,especially in corridors tha already have a rail ROW. This is exactly what happened in Miami (where I live) and the South Dade Busway. The southern FEC corridor tracks were removed to pave the busway as a temorary link between the southern communities and the Metrorail at Dadeland, which would later be converted to rail as an extension to the metrorail. 12 years later and we still have the busway and to try and convert in the future is going to be way more expensive than just waiting and building the corridor as rail.

    It made no sense to remove perfectly good tracks and pave over them to add rail later. It would have been better just to throw on some LRVs and attract more than just the bus riders that were already there. The current trip takes 40 minutes, almost twice that of just driving to Dadeland via the Turnpike and SR 874 (mainly because it has o stop at every traffic light along US 1, and trust me there are alot). I believe that if it was a train, it could accomplish the trip faster and carry more people with faster speeds and traffic signaling priority (with crossing gates).

  • Marc

    It seems that the Alliance might have a good point in building the lines incrementally in segments. Ignore the Southern Corridor extensions for now. Or build the Northwest Corridor only to Broomfield, then later Boulder, then later Longmont. Or because it’s mostly on US 36, extend the BRT to Boulder as a precursor to the commuter train. Or extend the North Corridor to Thornton Pkwy or 104th Ave first, then later further north. Or build the Gold Corridor just to Arvada initially. However, I don’t know what to suggest about the I-225 Corridor.

  • ColoZ

    The “Northwest Corridor” is a real problem for FasTracks. The promise of parallel BRT and commuter rail has been sold in a way that’s almost designed to disappoint. FasTracks’ “BRT” construction on US 36 will consist only of bus ramps and stations; there is no money to provide through lanes on the highway itself. But the travel time estimates you see for BRT assume (completely unfunded) new carpool/bus lanes all the way between Denver and Boulder! So the rail line has lost a lot of local support because travel times compare poorly to a completely unrealistic BRT scenario.

    The other thing that’s important to realize is that except for the Broomfield-Denver stretch, this line would provide more interurban than commuter service. Boulder and Longmont are not suburbs of Denver, but function as a mostly independent metro area of their own. Rush hour traffic pours into Boulder from all directions in the morning, while outbound traffic is a relative trickle; the towns nearby (Louisville, Superior, Lafayette, and Longmont) are primarily suburbs of Boulder. That means that if service is heavily geared toward Denver-bound commuting (without much northbound morning service), it will not serve Boulder and Longmont very well.

  • The Northwest Corridor definitely makes the least sense as per cost per rider. Yet I think building the system slowing out in all directions is necessary to keep support coming from all the municipalities involved. Financially and environmentally it makes the most sense to put the north of until last but doesn’t seem politically feasible. Sadly they are going to have to do what is politically feasible to remain financially stable. Just the way it works. Still it is one of the most impressive build outs of transit in this country. Some other cities should look there for inspiration. Anyone know if they will every build some intercity rail from Denver to Colorado Springs seems like that could do pretty well?

  • AlexB

    I am curious as to why FasTracks went with commuter rail in the north areas of the city only and LRT only everywhere else. Did they consider building new LRT lines in the railroad ROW? Will the commuter lines run at frequent intervals all day long to actually be useful, or will it be something like 4 trains inbound in the morning and 4 trains outbound in the afternoon?

  • Brett

    Alex, Yes, they did consider light rail in the northern areas, but BNSF and UP wouldn’t allow it. Yes, the commuter rail will be frequent (the DIA line may have up to 7 minute headways). So it can be used in the same way as light rail. But the only way that the railroads would agree was if the technology chosen was heavy rail.

  • Allen

    “If Denver’s proposed expansion is at the extreme of U.S. transit programs, its difficulties, caused by the recession and inflation in construction costs, are not. RTD’s original plan suggested that FasTracks would require $4.7 billion to complete, but the project’s costs have ramped up to $7 billion according to the most recent estimates.”

    While construction inflammation and the recession have been problems, they’re not the root causes. The first overarching problem is the project was too large. We’ve seen this time after time, year after year, decade after decade –> large projects can not be accurately planned and quickly turn out to have massive problems that delay their completion and vastly increase their costs. This isn’t unique to transit, we’ve seen it with the Big Dig and countless other large projects.

    Construction cost inflation and recession are piss pour excuses by RTD and the public shouldn’t give the a free pass for them. Not because they happened; RTD doesn’t have control over that. Nevertheless, they used the CPI instead of projected Colorado Construction Cost Index increases in their projections. Using the latter would’ve narrowed that gap. And keep in mind their $4.7 billion had a 20% contingency in it PLUS the public said up to $7.2 billion was ok (so another 40% contingency!).

    The recession is even less of an excuse. In projecting sales tax revenue increases, RTD didn’t even include one recession over the period of time the bonds were to be paid off. This despite historically there being one or two per decade. And the cherry on top of that inexcusable stinker was their cherry picking of sales tax revenues. They didn’t use future projections for sales tax revenue increases. Instead what they did was cherry pick the best possible sales tax revenue in the metro’s history and claim that would happen going forward. They picked a period when not only did metro Denver experience large population growth but it experienced huge household income growth (remember, historically the West was as poor as the deep south).

    There are things that went wrong with this plan that RTD coudn’t control. We shouldn’t fault them for those. But overall, the project was too large and RTD’s planning too puerile to be able to survive anything going wrong.

  • Allen

    “No. BRT is a lesser form of transit than LRT, in both capacity and ride quality.

    People are not stupid. No region or area would or should accept BRT as a compromise for fear of being stuck with it, even after good economic times return, as they will have to compete with other “new” areas wanting to be part of the system versus spending money to upgrade what the system already has.”

    –Dan

    So is driving a Ford instead of a BMW. The problem with rail is it is vastly more expensive. For example, the typical LRT project costs 3 times to build as BRT w/ a dedicated lane (so not even cheap BRT) and yet only yields 20% more trips.

    The claims of lesser ride quality is a lie. That depends on how the agency configures the cars and buses; it is not about the mode itself. When I ride the bus, I only have to deal with the person sitting next to me; seat width. The pitch is still enough to sit comfortably and work on my latop. On the train, that isn’t the case. Not only is the width too small when someone sits next to me, but if someone else that’s 5’10”-6’0″ like me sits across from me (the seats face each other), not only will their knee rub against the inside of my knee (there is overlap) but it makes it difficult for me to work on my laptop and nearly impossible for both of us too. Trains aren’t magic.

  • Allen

    “Perhaps instead of building all the southern rail projects and ignoring the needs elsewhere, they could scale down the planned projects to something like BRT and build them out as promised, with a plan to convert to rail later when the funding becomes available.” – Jennifer

    The problem here is two fold. The southern projects already exist. More so, 1/3 of all office space in metro Denver is on the corridor from I225 to e/c470 along I25. This plan already is arguably already out of whack in terms of meeting actual transportation needs. Of course some of that depends on the author’s question about where and whom should transit serve.

  • EngineerScotty

    The cost savings of BRT vs LRT generally occur when you can reuse or recycle existing infrastructure. Exclusive ROW costs money, when that ROW must be elevated (including bridges) or buried, that costs even more money.

    The primary cost advantage with BRT is “mostly-exclusive” BRT is possible–if the line has to cross a river, busses can enter mixed traffic and use the existing road infrastructure for a short bit, whereas trains cannot. The reason the Crenshaw line in LA could have reached Wilshire if BRT, but only goes as far as Exposition now that they’ve done LRT, is that north of Exposition the BRT would run in mixed traffic, whereas rail would have required a subway.

    But outside that–exclusive-lane, surface LRT isn’t 3x the cost of BRT, especially when you have to buy land.

  • EngineerScotty

    The claims of lesser ride quality is a lie. That depends on how the agency configures the cars and buses; it is not about the mode itself

    BS. While you are correct that vehicle configuration plays a big part–a nice luxurious chartered motor coach is infinitely more comfortable than, say, one of the trams in Amsterdam (for those who have never been their, the streetcars there are narrow, decades-old, rickety, bone-jarring buckets of bolts–I’ve been on more comfortable hayrides). And some factors ascribed as an advantage for rail (not pulling to the curb to pick up stops) aren’t really inherent in the technology. However, rails prevent a much smoother surface than does pavement (where one finds things like displaced chunks of road, potholes, speed bumps, non-level grading for drainage purposes); and the need for vehicle suspensions to accomodate this produces a bumpy ride. The fact that rail vehicles are capable of being larger and heavier also contributes to ride quality. Holding everything else equal, a train is going to be more comfortable than a bus.

    The principle advantages of a bus, including BRT, are a) it is not tied to specialized infrastructure, making open configurations possible (generic bus services that use busways to expedite sections of the route), and b) busses can enter mixed traffic to get through “difficult” spots, like fully-developed urban fabric or waterways, or such.

    But when you make silly claims like a typical 3x cost savings for dedicated-ROW BRT (rails and catenary aren’t significantly more expensive than pavement, so this doesn’t even begin to pass the smell test–source?), or that rail’s claim to superior ride quality is a “lie”–it makes me suspicious. That sort of argument isn’t made by informed transit advocates who think that BRT is a better solution for a specific application due to to the conditions of the territory. That’s the sort of argument which is made by transit opponents, who simply want to spend as little money as possible on transit.

    And besides. The “typical ” cost doesn’t matter, at least not to transit professionals. (They do matter if your goal is to convince uninformed voters or politicians; but you’re posting in the wrong blog for that). Transit system development is a significant enough investment that every project requires due diligence (i.e. research and planning) to determine what is the most effective solution for that particular system, route, or network. Just because a particular technology works well in Brazil, doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the best solution for Boston. Or vice versa.

  • ChiefJoJo

    By the way, the Gold Line is not slated for light rail, but rather EMU technology.

  • Nathaanel

    What Denver ought to do:
    – build the Gold Line and East Corridor, which are both estimated to be high ‘bang for the buck’, and be very careful to get them right
    – build the I-225 corridor, which has a huge expected use and ties into the East
    – build the Central Corridor extension, which despite being short runs through dense areas, and ties into the East

    – Delay the rest.

    The southern extensions seem nice but have poor return on investment and should be delayed, especially since those areas already have *some* rail service.

    The Northwest Corridor has suffered severe planning problems, with the bizarre overlapping BRT, is a ‘mode orphan’ using diesel, seems to be trying to do multiple things at once, and needs to be looked at more carefully. The North Metro corridor is expected to serve the fewest people.

    And yet those in the north will be benefited if the EMU infrastructure for the Gold Line and East Corridor is built.

  • Allen

    “But when you make silly claims like a typical 3x cost savings for dedicated-ROW BRT (rails and catenary aren’t significantly more expensive than pavement, so this doesn’t even begin to pass the smell test–source?), or that rail’s claim to superior ride quality is a “lie”–it makes me suspicious..”

    Suspicious of what? you’re lack of knowledge? Look at the Central Corridor in Minnesota. BRT with a dedicated right of way versus LRT and it was 1/3 of the cost. Buying land, building a tunnel at the UofM, proper stops/stations and such.

    As for ride quality, the problem is how one evaluates quality. Note that I was speaking to the overall experience not being dependent on the mode. You on the other hand argue that what matters for quality of ride is how much of a bump a rider feels. That’ snot true at all. People want comfortable seating. They don’t want to rub knees with strangers. And rail itself isn’t exactly a pleasant ride. yes, there aren’t “bumps”. instead of minor bumps, one has to deal with the vehicles occasionally swaying from side to side.

    But the real problem is that in the transit world is that those of us who realize money doesn’t grow on trees and that the most good can come out of getting the most people taking trips on transit – any type of transit – get branded as some sort of “deniers” and people wanting to undermine transit. However, I fail to see how being able to have twice as many trips occur on transit with the same amount of money spent undermines it.

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