The Colorado Leader — October 10, 1992 … also published in the Haxtun Herald, Haxtun, CO on Oct. 14, 1992
By Dennis Polhill
An upcoming vote by the Denver Regional Council of Governments will determine whether the Denver Metro area, spends hundreds of millions of dollars on a failed idea, or if a policy of fiscal responsibility will guide our transportation dollar.
The Metro Area Connection, or MAC, is a light rail system that the Regional Transportation District desires more than anything else. The initial cost for the Five Points to Auraria MAC demonstration line is $100,000,000, and will be paid for by a use tax windfall. RTD’s idea that light rail is the key to Denver future is at best naively optimistic.
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal stated, “Anyone who still thinks that fixed rails…to be navigated by public-employee crews paid premium wages is the most effective means of circulation in a modern city gets an “F” in urban planning.”
Typically, there would be dozens of questions that would have to be answered before such a project gets started. Amazingly enough, the opinions from transportation professionals have barely registered a blip on the debate radar screen.
Before we jump head first into what could very well be a bottomless pit of government spending, perhaps we should have a few items analyzed.
First, if the purpose of developing a mass transit system is to decrease traffic jams, isn’t it foolish to consider a project that the RTD admits will not relieve traffic congestion during peak commuting periods”?
Second, the proposed MAC vehicles may be able to achieve speeds of 65 mph, however, the distance between stations will only allow an average operating speed of 18 mph. Not exactly a convenience when you calculate all of the time you spend getting to the fixed-rail, and the distance you have to cover once you get dropped off.
Third, the proposal claims air quality gains, but other cities have found essentially no environmental benefits with their fixed rail systems. Any possible air quality improvements can be achieved through different and much less expensive means.
Fourth, experiences in other cities which have developed rail systems since 1970 demonstrate an alarming trend of high cost overruns which require additional tax dollars to keep the system operating. And with an estimated operating cost of $8.75 per ride, our local government will have to do a lot of subsidizing!
Fifth, the MAC demonstration won’t accurately demonstrate demand for the system because there will be no direct charge to the rider. Commuter choices are based on comparisons of cost and convenience, not on abstract values. How then will the RTD be able to determine the how, when, where, and why questions about expansion?
Finally, the $100,000,000, as mentioned before, comes from a use tax that as levied on products purchased outside the RTD boundaries, but used primarily within the district. Is light rail the best use of this money? These dollars could provide better bus services, they could fund the development of other critical transportation needs (E-470 or the northwest parkway), they could finance more carpool lanes, better highways, and other projects metro wide. Instead,’ RTD has decided to pour all of it into a fixed rail system that accesses a little used corridor. They have failed to realize that increased highway use is an indication of the need for them, not a sign of their failure.
If we’ve learned one thing during this year’s election cycle, it’s that the voters in this state, as well as the nation, demand the most bang for their buck. The $100,000,000 in taxes collected by the RTD is money that has been taken out of the local economy for a project that can best be described as a white elephant. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has even speculated that downtown companies would suffer due to the extensive construction. If, in fact, this money is burning a hole in the pocket of RTD bureaucrats and light rail is merely a way to get rid of it, I strongly encourage them to consider the other transportation needs in the metro area, or give a rebate of $5 to every man, woman and child in the district. My guess is that the citizens will spend it wiser than the RTD.
Mr. Polhill is Chairman of the infrastructure Task Force at the Independence Institute, a Golden based think tank.