Randal O'Toole, Taxes, Transportation

O'Toole: Taking RTD's billion dollar A-Line

Denver opened its rail line to the airport a few weeks ago, but it seems to have been rushed into operation. I took the train to Union Station on Wednesday, May 25 and then back the next day. Fortunately, I allowed plenty of time because it was not very reliable.

The train is formally known as the University of Colorado A-Line, which is deceptive because it doesn’t actually go to the University of Colorado. Instead, the university paid $5 million for naming rights, which seems a strange thing for a public institution to do.

But then, deception is the name of the game for RTD’s new train. When I was on the airport subway to the terminal I heard a recorded announcement by Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, inviting people to take the A Line, which he said took “about 35 minutes to get to Union Station.” I happened to know that the train was scheduled to take 38 minutes, and mathematically, 38 is closer to “about 40” than “about 35.”

icon_op_edThe deceptions began long before this. In 2004, RTD promised voters that this line was operate at an average speed of 45 mph. But 22 miles in 38 minutes is just 35 mph. In 1998, RTD said it could build the line for $350 million, or about $480 million in today’s dollars, but in fact they spent $1.1 billion.

After getting off the subway, I knew the train left from one end of the terminal, but Denver’s terminal is so symmetrical I always have a hard time determining which end is which. So I looked for signs pointing to the transit center, but none were visible from the subway escalators.

It took me a couple of minutes to orient myself, and that couple of minutes cost me 15 more because a train left just as I bought my ticket. That was poor planning on their part and disappointing for travelers (such as myself) on a tight schedule.

After sitting on a stationary train for 14 minutes, we finally left the airport. Then, two station stops down, the operator announced that we would have to sit and wait for several more minutes because the next part of the rail line was single tracked and an airport-bound train was heading our way.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I said to myself. They spent 2-1/4 times as much as the original projected cost and still couldn’t afford to double-track the entire line? No doubt they will come back in a few years and insist on spending another hundred million dollars or so fixing that bottleneck.

RTD formed a public-private partnership to build this particular line. The agency bragged that this would save money.  In fact, they did it to avoid a debt limit that was included in the 2004 ballot measure. When cost overruns pushed the cost of the six lines from $4.7 to $7.6 billion, RTD knew it wouldn’t be able to complete those lines without exceeding the debt limit.

The public-private partnership came to the rescue. The private partners borrowed the money and RTD contracted to pay the private partner a monthly fee that would be sufficient to repay the debt. Officially, the debt isn’t on RTD’s books, but it still has to repay it. Just another way to deceive the voters.

In any case, my “about 35 minutes” ride ended up taking 55 minutes including the 14 minutes waiting at the airport and the three-minute delay waiting for the on-coming train.

Arriving in Denver, I learned there that just the day before the train had broken down, leaving eighty passengers stranded on a fifty-foot-high viaduct at 5 pm.

Eighty passengers at rush hour? Sounds like two buses would be sufficient to do what RTD is doing with a $1.2-billion train.

This was just one of several breakdowns in the train’s first month of operation. Even the crossing gates aren’t reliable, forcing the agency to put flaggers out at each crossing.

File photo: Todd Shepherd
File photo: Todd Shepherd

It’s too soon to tell what ridership will be, but RTD is already being deceptive there, too. Media reports say that weekday ridership in the first couple of weeks of operation was 15,680 people.  This is short of the first-year ridership which “is expected to be 18,600.” Page A-121 of the 2011 New Starts annual report says the first-year projected ridership was 27,500. RTD revised this downward so no one would be too upset when actual ridership fell well short of that level.

My return trip wasn’t quite as exciting. The A train was waiting for me when I arrived at Union Station. Unfortunately, one of the two ticket machines next to the train was broken, and there was a long line in front of the other machine. A security guard pointed out some other machines in the distance, but almost none of the people in line were able to buy tickets before the train left.

RTD then had the crowd dance back and forth with successive announcements that the next train would arrive on track 2, then track 1, then track 2 again. Finally, the train did arrive on track 2 and the return trip to the airport was uneventful.

I’m not surprised that everything about this line is a deception: speed claims, cost overruns, changed ridership projections, and on and on. Maybe ridership will increase, but even if it does, the region still would have been better off with a bus-rapid transit line like the one that recently opened between Denver and Boulder.

Randal O’Toole directs the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.  A version of this article originally appeared in The Antiplanner blog.

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