In 2004, Denver voters approved spending $4.8 billion building six new rail transit lines, and the first line opened ten years ago. This was soon followed by four more to the gushing praise of various outsiders
Inside Denver, however, people are beginning to realize that the whole thing was a miserable failure, suffering massive cost overruns and never attaining its ridership projections. The West line, which had its tenth anniversary last week, never carried as many passengers as were projected in its first year.
Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) suffers from numerous problems that can be traced back to its rail construction projects. It is heavily in debt and doesn’t have the money or the borrowing power to build the last rail line it promised in 2004. It also doesn’t have enough money to pay enough drivers to keep its trains and buses running, and staff shortages have led to many delays and reduced service. The rail lines never attracted enough riders to put a dent in traffic congestion or reduce air pollution before the pandemic.
In a 9News report on the anniversary, one reporter points out that the West line never carried more than two-thirds of its projected ridership and currently carries well under half, one of the other reporters asked, “How do you convince people to ride it?” The answer should be to run transit service where people want to go. But that’s hard to do when it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to alter the route of a rail line.
The West line wasn’t built where people wanted to go; it was built on the route of an abandoned freight railroad. Someone said, “We can’t let this railroad go to waste; let’s instead waste hundreds of millions of dollars turning it into a light-rail line.”
Trundling along at 20 miles per hour, it seems to take forever going from Denver Union Station to Denver’s western suburbs. For comparison, the Flatiron Flyer, the only bus rapid transit line included in the 2004 ballot measure, goes an average of 32 miles per hour between Denver and Boulder and carries as many or more people than most of Denver’s rail lines. If travel patterns change, RTD can change the route of the Flatiron Flyer in an instant.
Denver voters approved light rail because contractors saw it as a great opportunity to make money from taxpayers. As one representative of Denver’s Associated General Contractors told me, “We know light rail is a waste of money, but we see it as a WPA project for Denver.” But the WPA was created during the Great Depression, while Denver was booming in the 2000s and rail construction simply made all other construction in the region more expensive.
Even confronted with these facts, reporters aren’t willing to say outright that Denver’s rail projects were failures. “It’s too early to say whether or not Denver-area residents will realize a return on investment from the project,” says the Denver Business Journal. No, it’s not. They weren’t going to before the pandemic and they certainly aren’t going to now that downtown jobs have declined and many people are working at home.
Randal O’Toole is a land-use and transportation policy analyst, the director of the Thoreau Institute, and director of the Independence Institute’s Transportation Policy Center. He blogs at The Antiplanner.
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