NO: Transit mix would be slow, incompatible
By Daniel G. Jennings
Sunday, February 24, 2002 - The Colorado Senate has passed a bill to let the Regional Transportation District place its ambitious and expensive FasTracks transit-expansion program before the voters next November. If the House and Gov. Bill Owens go along, voters will have to decide whether to increase RTD's current 0.6 percent sales tax to 1 percent to fund the $4.4 billion project.
Although I'm an advocate of public transit, I am unsure of backing FasTracks because parts of RTD's proposal are badly flawed and should be changed.
The most obvious flaw is that RTD's current plans call for the use of three different kinds of rail transit:
Light rail, like RTD's existing system.
Commuter rail trains, like those used on New York's Long Island Railroad, for the run to DIA.
Diesel-powered rail cars known as Diesel Multiple Units (basically a bus designed to run on rails) on a line to Boulder.
Using three incompatible systems could make rail trips more difficult than necessary, discourage rail use and needlessly increase rail-operating expenses.
Under RTD's current rail plans, a train could not go directly from DIA to the Tech Center, Boulder or Highlands Ranch. Nor could a train go between the Tech Center and Boulder. Standard two-story diesel commuter trains like those to be used on the DIA line couldn't fit under the electric power lines on the light-rail track; light-rail trains couldn't go to Boulder or DIA because there wouldn't be any power lines for them; and the diesel rail cars would use different track than the light rail and commuter rail trains. This means rail trips will take longer than necessary and passengers will have to get off and change trains to reach their destinations.
Making trips longer and harder will make it more likely that people will chose driving rather than riding the train.
If the entire system were light rail, however, a train could go directly between Boulder and DIA, or DIA and the Tech Center. A passenger could get on a train at DIA or the Tech Center and go straight to Boulder. Rail travel would be faster and easier and people would be more likely to use it.
Using one kind of train also could reduce maintenance and operating expenses. Having three kinds of trains means three different train-maintenance facilities with different staffs of mechanics and different maintenance equipment.
Utilizing three different kinds of trains also means that if, for example, rail ridership fell on the Boulder line but increased on the Littleton line, RTD couldn't simply transfer trains from the Boulder to Littleton line to handle the additional riders. Under the current plans, RTD might spend a fortune for trains that could end up gathering dust in the rail yards while many of its passengers have to ride in standing-room-only cars.
Instead of using three different kinds of rail, RTD should make a decision to use just one. Since RTD is already using light rail, RTD policy should be that all future RTD rail lines be light rail with vehicles that can be used on any other RTD rail line.
We should also note that electric-powered light-rail vehicles don't pollute like diesel buses and commuter trains do. Transit agencies in other parts of the country, such as Los Angeles, are already facing court orders to get rid of polluting diesel buses to reduce smog.
Another aspect of FasTracks that should be scrapped is the $106 million bus rapid-transit line on the Boulder Turnpike. (That cost figure is for BRT stations only. RTD expects the state to pay an additional $112.3 million for HOV lanes along the route.)
BRT is a special lane of highway that buses would run on at a high speed. Similar busways in other parts of the country have failed to attract large numbers of riders and had a higher operating cost than light rail. To make matters worse, this bus rapid-transit line will largely duplicate RTD's proposed $309.6 million diesel rail-car line to Boulder along the old Santa Fe-Burlington Northern railroad tracks.
Why should there be two expensive transit lines running to the same destination when other parts of the metro area aren't getting any transit service at all?
A better solution would be to spend all of this money on one light-rail line running up the center of the Boulder Turnpike to the University of Colorado campus in downtown Boulder. This would greatly reduce maintenance costs, because there would be only one system to maintain. It also would increase the speed and capacity of the transit system, which means people would be more likely to use it.
A train can haul as many people as several buses, eliminating the need for several bus drivers. Since the light-rail line could be connected to other light-rail lines in Denver, trains connecting Boulder with the Tech Center, Highlands Ranch, Aurora, DIA and other destinations would be possible, which would increase ridership.
Utilization of different kinds of transit isn't the only flaw in FasTracks. For example, there is no plan for a rail line to all the fast-growing, high-density developments along Hampden and C-470 in Southwest Denver.
Nor has any provision been made for transit service to a number of popular destinations around Denver. There is no plan for rail lines to the new, high-density developments at the old Lowry Air Force Base or in Cherry Creek, even though thousands of new homes are being built in those places. Nor is any sort of transit service planned to the very popular Cherry Creek shopping center (one of Denver's most popular destinations); the massive new Interlocken Business Park; the planned Colorado Mills Mall (which could one day be the area's No. 1 destination); or fast-growing outlying areas such as Castle Rock, Parker, Evergreen, Brighton, Conifer, Longmont and Lochbuie. What good are rail lines that don't go where the new jobs, homes and destinations are located?
The new destinations are not the only Denver transit needs being neglected in RTD's current plans. The heavily used buses on major streets like Colfax Avenue, Federal and Colorado boulevards and other major streets are often running at capacity that is standing-room only. Something will have to be done to move riders around the core of the metro area, and soon.
It's time to look beyond FasTracks, which looks a great deal like the RTD ballot initiatives that failed in the past, and adopt more sensible plans that voters are more likely to approve.
Daniel G. Jennings can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.