DENVER–A bill to provide passenger rail service from Pueblo to Fort Collins and to Winter Park would cost Front Range taxpayers unquantified billions of dollars with no promise of commuter benefit or significant highway traffic reduction. The proposed Front Range Passenger Rail District is gerrymandered to concentrate the votes needed to approve any new taxes it might wish to impose in the metro Denver area, while forcing others up and down the Front Range to also foot the bill.
Senate Bill 21-238, sponsored by Senators Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo and Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada and Representatives Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo and Matt Gray, D-Boulder seeks to create a new multi-billion-dollar burden on taxpayers to build and manage what some say is certain to be a money-losing boondoggle.
An unelected ‘political subdivision’
As described, the District is a “political subdivision” of the state but “is not an agency of state government and is not subject to administrative direction by any department, commission, board, bureau, or agency of the state.”
A board of directors, six of whom are appointed by the governor and must be confirmed by the state Senate, controls the District, and may include various non-voting advisory members, including railroad companies.
The District would encompass all of Denver and Broomfield and “all areas within Adams, Arapaho, Boulder, Douglas, Huerfano, Jefferson, Larimer, Las Animas, Pueblo and Weld counties that are located within the territory of a metropolitan planning area (MPA).” Parts of Weld, Larimer, Huerfano, Las Animas, and Pueblo counties outside an MPA and “within 5 miles of the public right-of-way of interstate highway 25” are also included.
Metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) representing more than 1.5 million residents, including the Denver Regional Council of Governments, get four seats on the board, while MPOs representing between 500,000 and 1 million residents, including the Pike’s Peak Area Council of Governments and the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, get two seats each, while the Pueblo Area Council of Governments and the South-Central Council of Governments get one seat each.
Backdoor funding for FasTracks?
Specially reserved is one seat for a director appointed by the Governor from “a county, city and county, or municipality through which light rail was planned” as part of the existing Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) FasTracks rail system but “has not been constructed.”
RTD, which includes metro Denver and Boulder County, was supposed to extend rail service to Boulder, where Governor Polis lives, and on to Longmont. That part of the system has been shelved in part due to costs and FasTracks revenue failures, and in part due to difficulties making an agreement with the freight rail companies that own the right of way needed.
El Paso County Commissioner Holly Williams believes Polis is trying to get the rail service RTD has refused to extend to Boulder paid for by the taxpayers of the new District, rather than by RTD taxpayers.
“About two months before the Front Range Passenger Rail District bill was introduced, Governor Polis went in front of the RTD board and spent fifteen minutes telling them how angry he was at them because the route from Denver to Boulder had not been built, and then this bill gets introduced,” said Williams in an interview with Complete Colorado Tuesday. “[The Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, the predecessor to the District] voted the preferred route would go to downtown Denver and then to Boulder and Longmont, which means our taxes from Colorado Springs would be building that RTD route.”
Questionable benefit for commuters
El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf told Complete Colorado the utility of Front Range rail as a system for moving any sizable proportion of the more than 3 million daily commuters in Colorado, and it’s fiscal stability, is questionable.
“The problem is, in Colorado we have population densities that are much lower than in other big cities,” said VanderWerf. “The City of Colorado Springs, with four hundred thousand people, is 215 square miles. I think New York City is something like ten square miles with ten million people. I understand why people are so deeply interested in Front Range rail, but they’re not actually trying to apply it mathematically to the unique environment that we have here on the Front Range in Colorado.”
VanderWerf says he’s not aware of any public rail system of any consequence anywhere in the country that’s making money.
“Even in places like New York City they’re losing money,” VanderWerf continued. “They still require continued public investment.”
El Paso County Commissioners have formally opposed the rail district proposal, as well as a separate transportation funding bill moving through the legislature.
The District can tax, but not be taxed
The bill makes the District and all its assets exempt from all taxation or assessments by the state, cities, or counties, which means the loss of all property and other tax revenues that would otherwise benefit local citizens and pay for city and county services.
The Board can force landowners to sell their land to the District under eminent domain laws and has the power to “enter onto lands within the district” for surveying and other “examinations,” without permission of the landowners.
When it comes to building stations, the District can create two-mile radius Station Area Improvement Districts”(SAID) within which property owners are subject to additional taxes because, the bill claims, they “will be especially benefited” by the train station.
Both the District and each SAID must submit any proposal to increase taxes or create multiple-year debt to a public vote.
At the same time the bill makes it extremely difficult to hold the District accountable for damages or malfeasance by placing a 30-day deadline on filing lawsuits against the District. This is unlike standard legal practice where plaintiffs have two years or more to file.
Actual cost a mystery
The Fiscal Note for the bill does not project the cost of the rail system and only vaguely notes that there will be some “additional costs and workload” for both state agencies and local governments.
“I hear projections that it would be maybe six to twelve billion dollars, a huge amount of time, and then it would lose money every single year,” said VanderWerf. “So, we have a huge initial investment, and then we would have taxpayer investment yearly to keep it functioning.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) says high-speed rail projects elsewhere cost between $15 million and $148 million per mile. This proposal involves nearly 200 miles of track.
“I think the people that are interested in Front Range rail are not taking a holistic look, and they’re failing to think about these other issues, like how do you get people to and from the first and last mile in order to use a rail system,” said VanderWerf. “They clearly want Front Range Rail and I think they’re not paying attention to the science and the facts about public transportation infrastructure.
The bill passed the Senate on third reading on May 13 and is scheduled to be heard in the House Transportation & Local Government Committee Tuesday, May 25 at 1:30 p.m.
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