Denver Elections Finance

Denver Pols Reject Plan to Increase Transit Sales Tax, Put FasTracks Expansion Program in Doubt

» Seeing little hope in approval from electorate this year, regional board delays vote despite difficult fiscal situation.

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.

Denver High-Speed Rail

Colorado Promotes Two-Line, $21 Billion High-Speed Connections Across State

» No clear source of funds doesn’t seem to concern plan makers. But it’s time for some national decision-making about which lines to prioritize.

If you want clear proof for why we need a national agency to coordinate decision-making about rail route choices in the United States, take Colorado’s $21 billion scheme as evidence.

The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority has conducted a study of potential high-speed rail corridors in Colorado, considering areas as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, as far south as Trinidad, and as far west as Grand Junction and concluded that the most reasonable, cost-effective option would be to build two new routes: 160 miles north-south along the I-25 corridor between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 150 miles east-west along the I-70 corridor between Denver International Airport and Eagle.

The suggestion is effectively a shortening of a proposal made last year by several states to connect Denver to El Paso along a 720-mile super-link.

The 18-month long study concluded with a projection of 35 million passengers by 2035, generating about $750 million in annual fare revenues, enough to make up operating costs. No way, of course, will it ever pay back its construction costs. That is, if you ignore the cost-benefit analysis of the project, which the Rail Authority claims proves will produce a 150% return on investment in increased economic activity along the affected corridors.

With proposed average speeds of 90-100 mph between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 60-70 mph between Denver and Eagle, the rail line as planned would be no slow-poke; nor, however, would it provide the kind of very fast travel speeds that make switching from private cars into trains an obvious proposition. The Rail Authority would construct its project in a series of stages: from the airport to Colorado Springs, via downtown Denver, in a $3.3 billion first phase, and from Denver to Summit County (location of many ski resorts) in a $9 billion second phase.

It’s a grand plan — but in no way should it be a national priority. With dozens of potential rail routes competing for federal investment around the country but only $12.5 billion allocated to intercity rail projects thus far, someone’s going to have to decide which programs move forward and which ones don’t. Compared to equivalent projects along the West and East Coasts, the Midwest, and Texas, Colorado’s plan would provide service to far fewer people at a more expensive price. Ridership estimates seem massively out of line with reality: other than Denver, there are no metropolitan areas in the affected areas with populations of more than one million people.

But some in Denver still hope to see a “massive influx” of dollars from Washington for their preferred project.

Unfortunately, because of a federal system that prioritizes state planning over U.S. decisions and because of a Congress whose members have a tendency to promote local interests rather than long-term nationwide goals, Colorado seems likely to continue to receive planning funds for the project, whether or not there’s any hope of the system actually being built. And because high-speed rail is in mode today, more realistic alternatives, such as a $3 billion upgrading of the existing lines for improved standard intercity rail between the affected cities, will likely be ignored.

Whether the money would be better used to keep Denver’s local rail expansion program afloat (the project faces a number of financial difficulties) seems to have been dismissed as an unrelated issue. It’s not. Whether they deny it or not, the proposed Colorado system would compete directly with Denver’s planned East Corridor commuter rail line between downtown and the airport. There simply is not enough traffic to justify both projects.

Today’s U.S. Department of Transportation has demonstrated itself to be a qualified and level-headed sponsor of the national rail program and therefore unlikely to find itself sponsoring a project whose advantages are questionable. But what would happen if Colorado’s senators expect funding for their preferred investment in exchange for their support of something else? What if the President chooses to use high-speed rail as a political tool to win support from voters in this swing state?

In no way do I mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with Colorado looking to increase infrastructure investment within its borders. The Rail Authority’s contention that Colorado taxpayers will have to sponsor 50% of the costs of the line is a refreshing acceptance of the fact that it makes little since to ask the national government for a full rebate. But until the U.S. commits to a full-scale “Interstate Railroad” program that guarantees a source of funding for projects across the country, there will be limited federal dollars for rail — and the government has a responsibility to ensure that the best projects are funded.

We have yet to see a true national high-speed rail plan from the federal government, which has a tendency to resort to generalities like environmental improvement or commute time reductions when discussing how it will prioritize grant distribution. Never has Washington clearly stated that it wants to fund one line over another. And it won’t: it’s a political impossibility when Congress holds such a strong grip on the way executive department decisions are made. This means that impossible projects like Colorado’s will continue to receive planning funding for years to come.

Image above: Rio Grande Zephyr at Denver Union Station, from Flickr user Sideshow Bruce

Architecture Commuter Rail Denver Light Rail

A Grand Gateway for Denver’s Transit Users

» The redevelopment of Union Station has produced debate over the two-block separation between commuter and light rail operations. But that gap could evolve into a brand new neighborhood and better access to areas northwest of downtown.

Denver’s got a bright future ahead for its transit system, with new light rail and commuter rail lines planned to extend in virtually every direction from downtown. Though the recession has reduced sales tax revenues and will likely mean a slower timetable for the completion of the region’s $6 billion FasTracks — and even mean the possible elimination of some components of the capital investment program — one element is unchallenged by the financial difficulties of the contemporary environment, if only because it will serve as the essential core of the planned network: Union Station.

Expected to cost some $500 million to expand and reconstruct, this terminal will undoubtedly become the nerve center for the region’s public transportation commuters as it will serve up to 200,000 daily users, and the city has big plans. Union Station will extend two blocks northwest from a renovated 1914 structure and include an eight-track commuter rail and intercity rail hub, a city-wide bus transfer center, and a light rail station. On the surrounding 20 acres of currently vacant land, a private developer will build up a brand new neighborhood of housing, commercial space, and offices.

There has never been much controversy about making Union Station the center of transit agency RTD‘s expanding system; the local back-and-forth has been over just how the structure is rebuilt.

When RTD and a coalition of stakeholders released a master plan for the station in 2004 after purchasing it in 2001, it envisioned a simple-to-understand project: directly north and south of the old building, underground platforms for rail and bus passengers would be within feet of one another, connected via a street-level concourse. The facility would be a single unit, rather than a series of discrete elements.

What is now planned for a 2012 opening — Alex Block brings this to our attention — is far different in both conception and form. Because of cost constraints and Federal Railroad Administration regulations, the underground platforms for rail services have been replaced by street-level boarding zones, open to the sky above. Light rail and commuter operations are to be split by about two blocks, with a below-grade (but sunlit) linear bus terminal serving as a connector. The commuter and intercity rail station would be the center’s highlight, a magnificent series of arched white canopies serving as a symbol of Denver’s investment in transportation for the 21st century.

Between the two rail stations: a series of newly developed buildings and plazas. Instead of a sealed, one-building-that-fits-all-needs, Denver will get a series of connected public spaces linking together in a new community just adjacent to the city’s vibrant Lower Downtown. It’s certainly an unconventional approach to building a transit center.

Yet, in the process, the city has transformed its vision of its primary transportation hub from a purely mobility-oriented scheme to one that will play a fundamental role in spurring development downtown.

Station area plan Underground bus concourse

RTD cites a number of benefits of the proposal: it will decrease construction costs compared to the wholly underground option and allow the center’s components to be more readily integrated into the surrounding streetscape. The primary drawbacks? A minimal interest in using the historic building as the center’s focus and much-increased transfer times between light rail and commuter trains, as users will now be required to take a 700-foot hike between the two.

But this decision will have primarily good outcomes. According to initial estimates, the vast majority of users will not be transferring: During a typical peak hour, only about 1,000 people will be connecting between light and commuter rail, versus the 14,000 disembarking from trains overall. Though the light rail station will be positioned relatively far from the traditional downtown, it will offer better access to the city’s growing riverfront community and the Highland neighborhood on the other side of I-25. Light rail users will still have the option of riding the system’s other branch to the light rail loop closer to the core of downtown; direct access from Union Station will also continue to be provided by the free 16th Street bus mall shuttle, which runs frequently and reliably.

The connection between the commuter and light rail systems, via the 17th Street tunnel, doubling as a comfortable waiting area for customers boarding city bus lines there, has the benefit of putting bus services at the core of the facility, rather than to one side as originally planned. This effort will encourage rail-to-bus transfers and allow the city to promote all of its transit offerings, not simply those provided on steel wheels.

Most importantly, though, the newly spread-out nature of Union Station will transform the neighborhood by investing its streets with the activity and motion of a major transportation node. The buildings lining 17th Street will offer storefront restaurants and retail to commuters, enhancing both business activity and convenience for travelers. A series of parks will serve as welcoming resting areas during the better parts of the year. The advantages of neighboring a transit station will be multiplied by two.

There is, of course, still work to be done. Some architects have suggested ridding the bus tunnel of the moving sidewalks designed to speed people transferring between light and commuter rail. Doing so would be a mistake, though it will be critical to ensure that said sidewalks don’t get in the way of people waiting around for bus services. Meanwhile, the bridge between the light rail station and the riverfront zone, originally supposed to be in the form of a platform (“kinetic plaza”) connected to a commercial building, has been downsized to a pedestrian bridge. To fully leverage the place-making opportunities offered by this new station, that link must be reinforced.

For those who are concerned about interconnectivity and efficient transfers, the decision to sprawl out Union Station is certainly disappointing news. But the benefits from the perspective of encouraging better and more integrated urban growth should overcome those qualms. Other cities planning to invest in new transit hubs like that planned for Denver’s Union Station could do well in examining how de-hubbing a hub can make it all the more valuable to the surrounding city.

Images above: Denver Union Station, from above, from Denver Union Station

Denver Finance

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?

Denver High-Speed Rail

Southwest States Angle for New High-Speed Link

Southwest High Speed Rail Line

» Study would evaluate project linking Denver and El Paso.

The states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas will apply for a $5 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration to study the revival of passenger rail along the Denver-El Paso corridor, via Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The study would consider potential operation speeds of between 110 and 200 mph, though no money would be provided for construction of the 720-mile corridor.

The states hope to leverage their regional connections to become the federal government’s eleventh “authorized” high-speed rail corridor, a status that has debatable importance but which potentially could mean expanded access to rail money in the future. The line is partially used by Amtrak trains running from Kansas City to Los Angeles, but the majority of the route has been abandoned by passenger rail.

Grants are being distributed through the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which provides a general backbone for high-speed rail investment by the federal government in the United States.

Interest in creating a new north-south line in the Southwest is reasonable; it would improve rail connections in a region where only east-west links are present. But the focus on a Denver-El Paso line, which, apart from Denver, connects relatively small cities, seems misplaced. Denver is closer to Salt Lake than it is to El Paso, and the two former metropolitan areas are far larger than the latter and would likely produce much higher travel demand. Improving the existing Amtrak service between those cities would be far simpler than reactivating 500 miles of rail, as is suggested by this proposal.

Meanwhile, the Southwest has two enormous metropolitan areas that remain isolated from the national rail network — Phoenix and Las Vegas. The DOT recently designated a Los Angeles-Las Vegas link officially, but a Las Vegas-Phoenix link would likely generate far more travel than the El Paso-Denver corridor illustrated above. But because we have no national high-speed rail plan designating corridors for investment and improvement, it’s difficult to argue that the El Paso line shouldn’t be studied. We must develop a rigorous and objective system by which to compare and then pinpoint corridors for funding.

This route should not be a major priority for interstate rail investment, especially since there are a number of corridors that are arguably far more valuable that have yet to be qualified as “authorized.” Routes between Austin and Houston, New York and Montréal, and Cleveland and Pittsburgh are not included in Washington’s official list of high-speed rail routes but they are well deserving of a place in the panoply of lines that are being considered for funding.