Commentary

Cancel FasTracks

With a base salary of $290,000, RTD general manager Cal Marsella is one of the highest-paid public officials in Colorado, so he must be a smart guy. Yet it took him four years to admit what Jon Caldara and researchers at the Independence Institute knew before the 2004 FasTracks vote: There is no way RTD can build FasTracks rail lines on time and on budget.

Marsella says “no one could have predicted” that rising steel, concrete and energy prices would drive up the cost of FasTracks from the promised $4.7 billion to the current estimate of $7.9 billion. Yet, as Danish planner Bent Flyvbjerg points out in his book, Megaprojects, something like this always happens in projects of this scale.

Light-rail riders don’t save energy; they merely make someone else pay their energy bills. ”

Flyvbjerg observes that megaprojects like FasTracks inevitably suffer from “optimism bias.” RTD’s financial plan, for example, assumed the Denver economy would not suffer a single recession between 2004 and 2017. Because that proved false, RTD now says sales tax revenues will fall $2.8 billion short of its earlier expectations.

FasTracks promoters were also guilty of what Flyvbjerg calls “strategic misrepresentation” (i.e., lying) when they repeatedly told the public that RTD has built all its light-rail lines “on budget.” In reality, both the Southeast and Southwest lines cost far more than RTD’s original estimates.

When the costs of those lines went up, RTD revised its budgets upward, allowing it to later claim that they were built “on budget.” The 68 percent increase in FasTracks costs is about par for RTD’s course.

Environmentally, light rail is a disaster for the region. For every passenger mile carried, light rail consumes four times as much land as Denver-area freeways. It also uses more energy and emits more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average SUV.

Light-rail riders don’t save energy; they merely make someone else pay their energy bills.

Marsella now says RTD has three choices: scale back construction, delay completion of FasTracks until as late as 2034, or raise taxes again. But there is a fourth choice: cancel FasTracks.

Without the tax increase voters approved in 2004, RTD can improve bus service in every FasTracks corridor, operating buses as fast and as frequently as the proposed FasTracks rail lines.

RTD’s own analyses of FasTracks corridors showed that bus rapid transit using a combination of high-occupancy lanes and existing roads would cost less and do more to relieve congestion than rail.

So why did RTD pick rail, the high-cost, low-benefit solution?

One answer is that rail lines create lots of profits for the companies that supported the FasTracks campaign. For example, Siemens donated more than $100,000 to the FasTracks campaign and was rewarded by RTD with a $187 million no-bid contract for light-rail cars.

The other support for FasTracks comes from those who want to socially engineer Colorado lifestyles. They use light rail as an excuse to build tax-subsidized high-density housing projects on properties taken from their owners by eminent domain near planned rail stations. Yet few Americans aspire to live in such dense housing, and such compact development makes little sense in a state that is 97 percent rural open space.

Canceling FasTracks will save taxpayers billions of dollars and allow RTD to make almost immediate improvements in bus service, rather than having to wait years to complete rail lines. This is the best solution for both taxpayers and transit riders.