RTD runs the old bait and switch

Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

In 2004, area voters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax as part of the FasTracks ballot initiative. The money collected from the tax was to be entrusted to the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in exchange for its promise to build, among other things, a Northwest Rail that would ultimately provide Boulder, Longmont and Lafayette with a link into Denver’s light rail system. It was to be a great thing for all of us, including area businesses and the environment.


But somewhere along the way, it appears that RTD either spent our money on somebody else’s project or the brain-trust at the transportation district was simply too incompetent at estimating construction costs to deliver on the promises it made in exchange for our money in the first place. Or, there is a third option: Boulder County taxpayers just made a good mark.

Thank goodness these carnies of transportation aren’t the decision-makers on all public projects supported by a special tax. Just imagine that world.

What if RTD had been in charge when six metro counties voted to tax themselves in order to build Coors Field? At the time, the stadium project was controversial to be sure, but we gave our money to the Stadium District and construction started right away. Today we have one of the premier ballparks in the nation, and it’s all paid for.

It worked out so well that we continued to pay the tax so we could build that nice man who owns the Broncos his own sports palace in the same fashion. Once again, we entrusted our hard-earned money to the Stadium District, and now we are the proud owners of Mile High at Invesco Sports Authority at Mile High, or some combination thereof, stadium. It’s pretty nice, whatever they’re calling it this year. And like them or not, at least these stadiums now exist.

If RTD had been in charge of spending the stadium tax and getting these sports arena projects up and running, all we would have today is a giant billboard on Blake Street with an artist’s rendering of what Coors Field will look like in 2042 … maybe. As for Mile High, it wouldn’t matter anymore because Pat Bowlen would have moved the Broncos to another city years ago after going nuts trying to figure out what RTD was doing with the stadium money that it wasn’t spending to build the stadiums it had promised to taxpayers.

What is happening with the Northwest Rail today is no less absurd than this example. Earlier this week, eight years after the FasTracks tax was approved by voters, RTD was actually contemplating just shelving the whole idea of giving Boulder County the rail line it promised to build with our money. And RTD is not offering to refund our money if it decides to flake on its commitment.

Instead, the transportation district has the nerve to offer other transportation alternatives that, in one form or another, involve giving us yet another bus system instead of the light rail we paid for. It’s the ultimate bait and switch, as if we would have voted to raise our taxes for more half-empty buses screwing up traffic. Once again, this would be like waiting a decade on Coors Field only to be told by RTD that it had decided to just build a really nice concession stand that serves Ball Park franks and Velveeta nachos instead.

So why is this happening? It appears that RTD has less of a grasp on estimating costs than the average 12-year-old in one of our failing schools.

In 2004 RTD told us it would cost a total of $894 million to build out the Northwest Rail project. The district now claims that it underestimated the costs by nearly a billion dollars. The new number to build the rail system is $1.7 billion. Unless my math is as bad as an RTD number cruncher, the transportation district missed its estimate on this project by more than the amount of its total original cost estimate. That, to put it politely, is not very good.

In its defense, RTD says that things changed over the years that it could not have anticipated, and that’s what drove up the costs. Are you kidding? It’s only been eight years and RTD couldn’t keep up with the times. But now that it is estimating costs for the rail project that has been pushed to 2042 or beyond, it wants us to trust that it’s thought of everything this time around. And they also want us to double the amount of tax money we give them.

That’s crazy. Trains may only be found in museums by 2042 at the rate technology is changing the world. For all RTD knows, we’ll be using a transporter to get to Wynkoop Brewery from Boulder County by the time it gets around to breaking ground on the Northwest Rail, which by 2042 might cost $12 billion. Who can say?

This kind of incompetent planning shouldn’t have occurred. The folks at RTD, at least the executives, are obviously pretty smart. At least we hope they are smart, since 47 of them are being paid between $100,000 and $200,000 a year in income — plus an average of 33 percent more on top of that in the form of benefits and perks. Unless my math is RTDed, that’s like $6 million to $8 million being split between just a handful of people, presumably the same rocket scientists who underestimated the costs of a $1.7 billion project by about a billion dollars, so far.

Assuming that it is too much at this point to simply ask that we taxpayers get a well-run, well-planned, fiscally responsible transportation system for our money, how about this as an alternative to the concession stand currently being offered to replace our stadium. For the next eight years, RTD pays us the same amount of money that we have been paying to them since 2004. In exchange for this revenue, we will provide the transportation district with a perfectly accurate scale model of the rail system that we thought we were buying all this time. Hey, it’s more than we ever got from RTD.

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