As reported by Colorado Public Radio, Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) is enthused about the idea of spending $2.5 billion for a 45-mph Front Range train from Ft. Collins to Pueblo. RTD’s own FasTracks rail project ended up costing more than twice as much as was promised to voters, forcing RTD to at least delay construction on a proposed line to Longmont.
When that line was at the stage that Front Range rail is at now, RTD estimated that it would cost $211 million. By 2008, the cost had risen to more than $700 million and the line was expected to carry so few riders that taxpayers would end up paying $60 a ride.
RTD’s decision to push back the Longmont line for a decade or two naturally angered Longmont officials who had endorsed FasTracks because RTD promised them a train. A Front Range train paid for by the state could get RTD off the hook since that train would also go through Longmont.
Longmont to Denver is less than a quarter of the distance from Ft. Collins to Pueblo. If RTD suffered a 230 percent cost overrun (and the real cost is undoubtedly even more now), what makes anyone think that the projected cost of Front Range rail is reliable?
As a more recent example, the city of Honolulu has now officially admitted that completing its misbegotten rail transit project will cost more than $10 billion and that it won’t be done until 2033. When first proposed back in 2006, it was supposed to cost less than $3 billion and when construction began in 2013 it was supposed to begin operations early this year.
Not to mention the fact that, with the pandemic, there’s no guarantee that anyone will want to ride such a train in the future anyway.
This is just another illustration of the problem with government funding of transportation infrastructure. Even if the early projects make sense (which in the case of Denver or Honolulu rail, they didn’t), political pressures will require that more projects be built that don’t make sense. This is why transportation infrastructure should be funded exclusively out of user fees; if users aren’t willing to pay for it, it shouldn’t be built.
Randal O’Toole is a land-use and transportation policy analyst. A version of this article originally appeared in his blog, TheAntiplanner.