Denver Rails Costs Skyrocket

FasTracks Costs Up 179 Percent

published in Antiplanner, Planning Disasters, News commentary
by Randal O’Toole

No matter how disastrous rail transit plans turn out, their advocates can always count on public innumeracy to overlook the problems. Take the case of FasTracks, the plan to build 119 miles of new rail transit in Denver.

When approved by voters in 2004, RTD, the region’s transit agency, estimated it would cost $4.7 billion. Last May, that estimate went up to $6.2 billion, which RTD reluctantly admitted (two months later) it could not afford.

Now, the latest report indicates that the cost will be $7.9 billion. That’s 68 percent above the voter-approved $4.7 billion cost.

Yet the very first comment to the Denver Post story about the latest hike is, “Build it no matter what it costs. It’s only 35% more.” So now, $6.2 billion has become the “approved” standard. (Actually, $7.9 billion is 35 percent more than $5.9 billion — who knows where that came from.) Worse, even one of the opponents (”Mike 8″) uses the 35 percent figure.

Actually, even 68 percent — the increase from $4.7 to $7.9 billion — is wrong. The real decision to build FasTracks rail lines was made in the major investment studies that RTD conducted between 1997 and 2001. These studies all compared the costs and benefits of rail with alternatives including buses, new highway lanes, and HOV lanes. As shown on page 9 of a report the Antiplanner wrote in 2004, every single study found that rail transit was the least cost-effective way to relieve congestion, but every single study nevertheless chose rail as the “locally preferred alternative.”

When added together, the studies estimated that the FasTracks rail lines would cost less than $3 billion (adjusted for inflation — see page 14 of this report). Actually, RTD did not prepare major investment studies for all FasTracks lines, but — in an appendix to the 2004 FasTracks plan — RTD admitted that the original cost estimate for all of the lines together was $2.8 billion, meaning that the costs had risen by about 68 percent by the time they put the issue to the voters.

The current estimated cost of $7.9 billion is a mere 179 percent more than the original cost. So much for building its lines on budget, which RTD repeatedly claimed it could and would do during the 2004 campaign.

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