Randal O'Toole, Transit, Transportation, Uncategorized

O’Toole: RTD stringing Longmont along with commuter rail ‘study’

Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) has announced that it is going to study the “commuter’s dream” of running a commuter rail line from downtown Denver to Longmont. This line was originally supposed to be a part of the FasTracks plan approved by voters in 2004, but cost overruns combined with new ridership projections killed it.

FasTracks was supposed to build six new rail lines and a bus-rapid transit line from Denver to Boulder at a total cost of $4.8 billion. Proponents claimed that this cost was highly reliable and there was no way there would be any overruns. But soon after the election, they admitted that costs were creeping up and by 2007 they had ballooned to $7.9 billion. The cost of the Longmont line in particular went from $750 million to $1.5 billion.

A revised cost analysis combined with a revised ridership analysis led RTD to conclude that the Longmont line would end up costing more than $60 per rider, while most of the other lines would cost less than $10 per rider and none would cost more than $22 per rider. Given the cost overruns, RTD wasn’t able to build all of the lines promised in the ballot measure and it was obvious that this is the one that should go. This was especially so because most of the route of the line was paralleled by the planned bus rapid transit line, which probably ended up being the least costly of any of the projects.

RTD will never admit it, but the rail lines it did build were effectively a failure. In 2004, RTD promised voters that FasTracks would greatly relieve congestion by taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road. The 2000 census found that 4.79 percent of Denver-area workers took transit to work and approximately 1.0 million vehicles were used by commuters every day. By 2019, after all but the Longmont line had been built, transit carried 4.78 percent of Denver-area workers to work and the number of vehicles used by commuters increased to almost 1.2 million.

Very few commuters go from Longmont to downtown Denver and even fewer of them are dreaming of taking a train. Instead, it is Longmont officials who have felt cheated since their city, unlike other Denver suburbs, didn’t get the rail line they were promised. The easy and affordable solution would have been to extend the Boulder bus-rapid-transit line to Longmont, but Longmont officials weren’t interested in that. They were promised a train and they demanded a train.

Although RTD has hired a “study manager,” the agency has no intention of studying whether or not to build the line or whether alternative technologies, such as express buses or rapid buses, would make more sense. Instead, the study is going to focus on how to convince Denver-area voters to increase taxes, yet again, to build this turkey of a line. Past “studies” have concluded that voters would reject such a tax increase, but they are hoping this time will be different.

This is really a demonstration of one of the evils of government ownership of transportation and other marketable services. In a market place, private owners will find the most cost-effective solution to any problem, which in this case would be buses. When government owns the facilities and they are paid for mainly out of tax dollars, agency officials will find the least cost-effective solution because that is the one that generates the most political returns. Denver area voters need to beware of “studies” that aim mainly to separate them from their dollars.

Randal O’Toole is a land-use and transportation policy analyst.  A version of this article originally appeared in his blog, TheAntiplanner.  


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