2018 Election, Jon Caldara, Taxes, Transit, Transportation

The Denver chamber’s transportation tax scam

I’m trying to think of the right platitude for the current transportation con. Something like, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. And fool me three times, well, I’m just an imbecile under the spell of the cronies at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.”

In the early 1970’s we the people of the Regional Transportation District voted to tax ourselves a half percent sales tax to buy new buses and build some 120 miles of fixed guideway rail, then called Personal Rapid Transit, to be completed by 1980, after which the tax was to be cut in half. Spoiler alert — we didn’t get even an inch of rail. And instead of the tax getting cut in half ten years later, it went up to 0.6 percent.

But fortunately, the Denver chamber came to the rescue in 2004 and led the charge to raise RTD’s sales tax to a full 1 percent sales tax to buy again what we already bought, a metro-wide rail system, this time with trains spreading out like tentacles with Denver as the center of the universe, because in case you haven’t been told, Denver is the center of the universe. FasTracks was guaranteed to be all completed by 2017.

Of course, even with all the corner-cutting, DIA train breakdowns, and faulty equipment, RTD is still nowhere close to being completed. The train from Denver to Longmont has basically been shelved altogether, causing well-earned frustration for those in the corridor who have been paying out the nose and seeing nothing for it.

As reported by the Boulder Daily Camera, the Denver chamber visited the area to seize on this frustration by doing what they do best, pimp yet another tax increase on the region’s business and political leaders. (Full disclosure, I’m a proponent of a competing transportation tax measure that will be on the ballot in November).

Their hook? This time maybe, nothing guaranteed in writing of course, but maybe, although we won’t know until well after the tax is passed by voters, it could perhaps imaginably go to build the train they’ve already paid for. You know, at least conceivably.

And all the weaker, obedient local chambers and politicos would have to do is sign on to a 21 percent state sales tax increase that their alpha-dog Denver chamber came up with called “Let’s Go (yet again) Colorado.” This would bring the sales tax rate in the region to about 9 percent, something you’d think organizations concerned with business might fight.

For tonight’s performance of the Music Man, the lead role of Harold Hill will be played by Denver chamber CEO Kelly Brough.

There was a time when chambers of commerce concerned themselves with, well, commerce, not selling taxes. Chambers would work to keep taxes and regulations at bay so businesses in their communities might flourish. They would help business people connect and network and share best practices.

If they still promoted those best practices, the northwest corridor could get its train without being swindled a third time, by using the same technique that’s funding much of the current rail expansion — bonding the savings of contracted transit service.

One of the great legacies of the late RTD general manager Cal Marsella was the leveraged savings from competitive contracting. Private companies run half of RTD’s bus service for a savings of up to 40 percent compared to RTD’s in-house costs. Same buses, same routes, same schedules, but the private operators do it for far less because they don’t have the same burdensome work rules. For instance, a private operator can hire more part-time drivers for just peak periods, or have a worker do several different tasks like drive and then clean buses or work dispatch.

When RTD’s bloated FasTracks plan went sideways, Marsella had those savings bonded to bring cash forward to complete delayed train lines. A big reason we have what trains we do is because of contracting out bus service. Yet RTD contracts out only half its bus service.

You’d think chambers of commerce and politicians in the northwest corridor would be demanding RTD expand the practice in order to break ground on their over-promised train without raising taxes yet again.

Will the Denver chamber continue to pull the strings of the other metro-area chambers? Or will the other chambers and elected officials outside of Denver step out from behind their mother’s thigh and demand they get what they bought and paid for, twice. Isn’t that what good business people do?

Isn’t that what we teach our children to do?

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver and a proponent of Fix Our Damn Roads, a competing measure to the Denver Chamber’s tax hike proposal.


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