Delay of north FasTracks line irks legislators

The Colorado Statesman

Democratic Rep. Matt Jones of Louisville led an at times adversarial charge against Regional Transportation District officials last Friday, grilling the authorities on a “gross inequity” related to construction of a 41-mile corridor of the FasTracks project from Denver to his district and Longmont.

Jones is outraged that RTD officials have either begun or completed construction on many segments of the voter-approved FasTracks project in the southern, western and eastern Denver metro areas, while in the north, only a “fifth of a line,” or more accurately about a 6.2-mile stretch from Denver to south Westminster, is under construction as part of the northwest line.

“It just really, really bothers me and it bothers a lot of people up there, that’s why you have a lot of council members saying we want to withhold our tax… it does not seem fair,” Jones addressed RTD General Manager Phil Washington and RTD board Chairman Lee Kemp during a meeting of the joint Transportation Legislation Review Committee.

Denver metro-area voters in 2004 backed a 0.4-percent sales tax increase to fund the 119 miles of new light rail, and were promised that the project would be completed by 2017. Since 2004, project costs have skyrocketed — the planned northwest line from Westminster to Longmont alone jumped from $894 million to $1.7 billion. RTD says the cost of the entire FasTracks project has jumped from $4.7 billion in 2004, to a stunning $7.8 billion.

With the increased costs, officials don’t expect the project to be completed before 2044 without voters approving yet another 0.4-percent sales tax increase. That 2044 date is even two years later than the troubling date given by RTD officials in March when they said the project could be completed by 2042.

The RTD board had come up with several solutions to speed the northwest line along, including voting in March to back a hybrid proposal that would have completed the project in increments, with Bus Rapid Transit along the line to Longmont completed by 2020, and commuter rail north to Church Ranch Boulevard in Westminster completed by 2022. But that project assumed a sales-tax increase, which the board later decided not to put before voters this November due to a lack of appetite for any tax increase in a down economy.

What enrages Jones and others concerning the perceived “gross inequity” is that Boulder County has chipped in its sales tax into the pot, but it seems to be the abandoned corridor of the FasTracks project. Boulder County has paid $93.4 million in FasTracks sales tax between 2005 and 2011, according to figures provided by the Department of Revenue. Boulder provided the most, about $45.8 million, followed by Longmont with $23.7 million and Louisville with nearly $7 million. Considering the cost to taxpayers, representatives believe their constituents should be seeing results along with the other Denver metro communities.

“We’ve been team players,” said Jones. “And what do we get? One fifth of a line.”

Jones’ frustration often times turned into a berating of RTD officials, resulting in committee chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, asking Jones to limit his remarks.

But Jones was not alone. Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, shared in the disgruntlement, agreeing that RTD should be making the project more of a priority and stating that the project was plagued from the beginning.

“RTD did a budget for the FasTracks system at 6 percent growth, which was far above what any economists were predicting the growth should be. So it was grossly mismanaged from the beginning,” said Ramirez. “The point being, as people’s money has been collected, a breach of contract almost has occurred here with that northwest rail, and it’s at the point where I’ve got people crying, ‘Just give us the money we’ve given them back. Forget about it. We’ll build our own.’ We need to look at this seriously.”

Washington attempted to defend RTD’s commitment to the entire project, including placing a priority on the northwest line. He displayed disgruntlement for the attacks he and his fellow RTD officials received from lawmakers. He pleaded with Hudak to give him an extra 30 seconds to defend his transportation district.

“The north there is our priority. It is our priority,” Washington said. “We’ve said it. We actually put it in a memo to the RTD board of directors that the north is a priority.

“We want to dispel the perception that we do not take this seriously,” he continued. “I heard somebody say we’re not taking this seriously. We are taking it seriously,” he said.

“As for the ‘mismanagement…’ we put up our guiding principles. This leadership team has been in place for two-and-a-half years. We can walk around and apologize to everybody, or we can get busy building something,” Washington added. “And so we have to get busy building something instead of apologizing for the sins of our fathers years ago. I want to get rid of that perception that we don’t take this seriously and that there’s mismanagement. There is no mismanagement. We are pushing this project forward. We are a good steward of the taxpayer dollars.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com