Sticker shock continues for Denver mass transit project

High-speed rail appeals to futurists and government planners as a symbol of progress and efficiency. Problem is, Denver’s plans for train travel are neither progressing on schedule or on-budget.

Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) — an eight-county transit authority funded by fares and sales taxes – floated the FasTracks project to voters in 2004, bumping the authority’s sales tax to a full one percent with the promise of flashy new trains and buses connecting suburbs, particularly to the north and west.

Some of the new infrastructure has already gone public, most notably a light rail line between downtown and Golden.

But for every success there seems to be setbacks in spades, and citizens in the further reaches of RTD’s tax district are getting restless for results.

Most recently, a cost analysis showed the district’s plans for an 11-mile rail line between two neighboring northwestern suburbs would cost twice as much as 100 miles of more flexible bus service. The Denver Post, in an editorial this week, called the numbers “startling” and “sobering.”

Sticker-shock has become a central feature of the FastTracks project, much to the chagrin of RTD’s PR staff. Cities like Longmont, the northern-most municipality served by RTD’s current traditional bus system, have become publicly confrontational on occasion in their demands for return on their FasTracks investment.

Transit planners floated a plan this week to put the northwest train line back on the rails, but at least one option for doing so relies on passage of a statewide transit tax.

Cost overruns have mostly been blamed on significantly higher raw materials prices since estimates were made in 2004, but this week’s comparison of rail vs. bus costs highlights a bigger choice between sexier trains and workaday buses.

One option is to scrap plans for rail service along U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder, and possibly also to Longmont, in favor of “Bus Rapid Transit,” a spin on express routes. Advocates of the move argue costs could be recouped by both fares as well as tolls for drivers willing to pay a premium for uncongested travel. A similar stretch of “high occupancy toll” lanes runs between downtown Denver and the start of U.S. 36.

If RTD sticks to its existing plans, the completion timeline has extended out to at least 2044, but materials prices and political climate are likely to continue changing substantially over the next 31 years.

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