Once seen as the American leader in transit expansion thanks to the approval of a dedicated tax in 2004, Denver has been hit hard by the recession, putting in question its ambitious rail construction plans. Thanks to a significant decrease in sales tax returns, the region does not have the funds to complete the eleven projects it had planned for 2017. Yesterday, the RTD transit agency’s board decided not to ask the region’s voters for another increase, virtually ensuring that the program will not be finished on time.
The agency board’s unanimous decision was predicated on the idea that the weak economy would make it difficult for voters to agree to paying more in taxes in an initiative this fall. Because next year is an election off-year, 2012 is likely the next feasible date for a vote on increasing sales taxes from 0.4% today to 0.8%, enough to keep the FasTracks expansion program in the black.
Though Denver’s West Corridor is currently under construction, and the East and Gold Lines are funded, current tax revenues indicates that the full spate of projects will not be completed by 2042 unless a new funding source is identified. The Union Station renovation — the central element of the transit improvement scheme — will move forward as per necessity.
Denver leaders have known about the lack of adequate funds since early 2009, but have done little to build a political coalition in favor of a tax increase. With fewer funds, lines will be significantly delayed and short segments of planned corridors will be built in phases.
If this situation was predictable, it is not unique to Denver: most American cities have experienced exceptional decreases in local tax revenues, putting projects of all sorts in difficulty. But this city’s leaders have failed to take advantage of the potential popularity of transit projects to argue for the need to expand and the necessity of increasing taxes to do so.
As St. Louis voters demonstrated clearly last week, there is a strong public interest in paying for better transportation solutions, even if it means handing the government a bit more in taxes. By mounting a campaign for transit investment based on a demonstration of the public sector’s competence, a call for support from political and business leaders, and an affirmation of the value of public transportation in getting people around, St. Louis reversed a defeat at the polls in 2008 with an overwhelming win for transportation. St. Louis will now not only restore bus and rail operations reduced over the past year, but also begin planning work on a new rapid transit corridor.
All this despite posturing by anti-tax advocates and a harsh political environment that makes discussing the value of the public sector a difficult proposition.
Denver could learn a lesson or two from its Midwestern peer: A bad economy does not improve anyone’s mobility, nor does it eliminate voter hopes for the future of their region. Deciding not to hold a vote this year amounts to giving up on FasTracks’ quick completion without even trying to save it.