Has Denver’s Rail Transit System (FasTracks) been worth it?

COST Commentary: The recent Denver light rail articles below are among many posted on this site which underscore the massive failure of rail transit to deliver on its promises to serve communities by cost-effectively reducing congestion and providing increased mobility for citizens. As described for light rail, here, and the two previous postings regarding commuter rail and streetcars; huge cost overruns and reduced ridership provide unacceptable cost-effectiveness which siphons limited transportation funds, degrading overall transit and total transportation. This results in lower quality of life in general with disproportionately negative impacts on low income citizens.

As described below, a major shortcoming in the vast majority of train transit systems is the failure to start with a clear definition of the problem being addressed and thoroughly evaluating all alternatives. Rail systems frequently start with the foregone conclusion that ‘rail transit’ is the answer to an ill-defined problem. This is often heavily influenced by those having major conflicts with their self-interest such as employment and/or their ideology.

Austin finds itself in the position of pursuing Urban Rail, as it did Commuter Rail, without the benefit of objective alternatives analyses. The purpose of the Transit Working Group [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) committee], comprised of local leaders, starts with the following:

“As a committee of CAMPO, the Transit Working Group will evaluate and provide input toward a regional high capacity transit plan for Central Texas and explore how its various components work as a system to fulfill the region’s transportation and future growth needs.

Providing a regional high capacity transit system has been a key goal for Central Texas for decades.” ———————————-

These statements clearly indicate advanced decisions regarding ‘high capacity mass transit’ (aka trains) as the “solution.” The preponderance of the Transit Working Group (TWG) agenda items are about trains and train planning.

The facts that train transit systems have proven they are not cost effective, will not reduce congestion and will lower the quality of life of the vast majority of citizens is rarely a subject of these TWG agendas.

Below is a brief lead-in note by Dennis Polhill, P.E., Senior Fellow, Independence Institute of Denver, followed by two articles from The Denver Post. The First article is based on a “No” answer to the title’s question and the second is based on a “Yes” answer.
Hi Transportation Professionals,

Transportation scholars and investigators, O’Toole and Schwartz, offer below more information and true reporting in this column than the Denver Post has done in its many cheerleading articles trumpeting the perceived benefits of light rail.

The pro LRT column and reader comments are also supplied for your reading enjoyment further down this email message. The pro column, of course, continues to claim a traffic reduction benefit. Now that the West line is open, we will soon be able to see what the traffic counts reveal. If it is a negative number it will be a very expensive lesson.

Thank you,

Dennis Polhill, P.E., Senior Fellow
Independence Institute
Denver, CO

On Friday, RTD opened its new West light rail line, the first corridor completed under the metro-wide FasTracks commuter rail project. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Editor’s note: The authors (below) are responding to the following question: “The West Line from Denver to Golden, which is the first of six rail lines approved by voters in the FasTracks vote of 2004, opened Friday. Given financial problems and delays for other lines, has FasTracks been a worthwhile investment?”

Has RTD’s FasTracks been worth it? No Posted: 04/28/2013 12:01:00 AM MDT

By Randal O’Toole and Brian T. Schwartz ,denverpost.com, April 28, 2013

With great fanfare, RTD opened its West Rail Line for business on Friday. This light-rail line was a boondoggle when it was first planned in 1997. It’s even worse today.

Last year, RTD expected the project to cost $709 million. Surely officials will brag about being “under budget,” as the final actual cost was $707 million. But in 1997, RTD estimated a total cost of just $250 million, or about $350 million in today’s dollars. So the line actually cost more than twice the original projections.

Moreover, RTD’s predictions of how many riders the West Rail Line will carry — and therefore how much congestion it will relieve — have greatly declined. In 2003, RTD predicted 29,100 west line riders per weekday in its first year of operation. Now, it predicts just 19,300. If the train carries 19,400 riders, RTD will likely claim it exceeded expectations when it actually fell one-third short.

Even that level of ridership will be achieved because RTD is canceling six express bus routes, herding riders to the slower and more expensive train. Daily commute times for some riders will increase by 40 minutes or more, RTD board member Natalie Menten told us. “I am getting a ton of calls and e-mails complaining about elimination or reduction. One person alone sent me a scanned petition with about 50 rider signatures from just one route,” Menten said. Many riders “stated they’ll just drive instead of enduring the extra hours they face away from home or family.”

Back in 1997, RTD compared light rail with bus rapid transit (BRT) on high-occupancy vehicle lanes on U.S. Highway 6. It found the bus was 88 percent as effective at reducing congestion, and for half the cost. Notably, the only BRT line that RTD included in its 2004 FasTracks plan has had the smallest cost escalations of any FasTracks route. That means that, for about the same price as RTD thought the West Rail Line would cost, it could have added BRT on both U.S. 6 and Interstate 70, relieving almost twice as much congestion for twice as many people. BRT was much more cost-effective than rail, yet RTD chose the more expensive alternative.

With double the construction costs and only two-thirds of the riders, the West Rail Line is clearly far less cost effective at relieving congestion than originally claimed. In fact, it may not relieve congestion at all. The boondoggle of 1997 has turned into the travesty of 2013.

Every transit agency that builds new rail lines eventually hits a financial wall that forces service cuts, thereby harming the transit riders it is supposed to serve. Atlanta hit the wall in 1985. Since then, the region’s population has nearly tripled, but transit ridership has fallen 16 percent.

San Jose hit the wall in 2001, cutting service by 25 percent and losing more than a quarter of its riders. Portland’s transit district experienced the same effect last year, cutting service by 12 percent and predicting further cuts of as much as 70 percent will be needed to meet its financial obligations.

There are different reasons for hitting the wall, but one cause is that rail lines must be expensively rebuilt about every 30 years. A recent example is the Metrorail system in Washington, D.C. Lacking funds to maintain the system, its rail lines have steadily deteriorated, leading to a 2009 crash that killed nine people. In 2010, Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff chastised transit agencies for planning new rail lines when they couldn’t maintain current ones.

RTD will hit its financial wall sometime in the next 10 or 12 years. When it does, the West line and other rail lines will be an even greater cost burden than they are today. Taxpayers, transit riders, and motorists will all rue the day that RTD built its first light-rail line.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and director of the Independence Institute’s Transportation Policy Center. Brian T. Schwartz is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute.

Has RTD’s FasTracks been worth it? Yes

By Phil Washington , General Manager of Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), denverpost.com, April 28, 2013

When voters of the Denver metro area approved the Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks program in 2004, they saw the benefits of investing more of their tax dollars to expand the region’s transit system. The public knew what they were doing when they gave RTD the go-ahead to build out 122 miles of new light rail and commuter rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, new park-n-Rides, and redevelop Denver Union Station into a multimodal transportation hub for the region. They knew we needed more transit options to accommodate future growth, the aging population, younger generations who don’t want to or cannot drive, as well as the daily commuter who’s tired of being stuck in traffic.

Now that the planning, engineering and construction are complete, RTD is opening the first FasTracks rail line — the West Rail Line — known as the W Line. RTD will welcome more than 20,000 passengers per day aboard the new W Line, eight months ahead of the original schedule and within the adopted budget. Riders will travel the 12.1-mile light rail line from the Jefferson County Government Center to Denver Union Station.

The W Line is a regional achievement. It’s the result of strong cooperation between RTD, its contractors, four local governments, federal and state officials, neighborhoods, schools, businesses and organizations. Each of these entities committed to this collaboration because they believe in expanding our transportation alternatives, reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality, fostering development opportunities, creating careers, and enhancing the overall quality of life.

Currently, RTD has 81 miles of rail and bus rapid transit in or soon-to-begin construction, and has invested $4.7 billion across the region so far. Specific to the West Line, nearly $300 million was injected into the local economy with more than 550 businesses involved in building the West Line, all during tough economic times. Economists estimate that every dollar invested in transit infrastructure translates into $4 injected into the local economy over a 20-year period. This is a wise investment, considering the development that is already springing up along the corridor.

It is a benefit for the returning military veteran who is trying to get to an appointment at the VA Hospital, or the disabled citizen who cannot drive and needs a mobility option, or to the student who cannot afford a car and depends on transit. We’re talking about real benefits here, far beyond the cost to plan, design and build the W Line. This is infrastructure that will be used for the next 100 years by our children and their children.

All great infrastructure projects endured challenges during their build-outs. The leaders that envisioned great national projects like the Transcontinental Railroad and the Interstate Highway System — and great regional projects like Denver International Airport, the T-REX project and Coors Field — were not deterred by naysayers. I’m happy they stayed the course and foresaw the endgame benefit.

As you travel across the metro area, you’ll see construction on other FasTracks projects, too, at Denver Union Station; the East Line to the airport; the Gold Line to Arvada and Wheat Ridge; the first segment of the Northwest Rail Line to south Westminster; the I-225 Line through Aurora; and the U.S. 36 Express Lanes partnership between RTD and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

When the public gave RTD the mandate to move ahead with FasTracks, it was a strong statement that showed the continuing visionary nature of our region. It’s our collective foresight, regional cooperation, and dogged pursuit of excellence that makes us the envy of many other major cities.

So, when you hop on board the West Rail Line, take pride that we, as a region, had a vision that is now becoming reality.

Phil Washington is general manager of the Regional Transportation District.

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