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?