After nearly a decade of planning, years of tax collection and millions of dollars already spent, the future of mass transit in Boulder County came down to a last-minute scramble of new ideas that had been proposed and rejected as quickly as hope faded that a Longmont-to-Denver rail line will be built in the lifetimes of the people who’ve already started to pay for it.
“We’re sort of trying to draw the new lines for a northwest transit system on the back of a napkin,” said Louisville mayor Bob Muckle. “That’s been challenging
The challenge will now likely fall to voters to sort out. On March 27, the Regional Transportation District board of directors voted unanimously—and with what appeared at times to be a grim determination to move forward at all costs on a project that has ballooned from $4.7 billion to $7.4 billion—to ask taxpayers to fund a reworked FasTracks transportation plan that was only proposed three weeks before.
Few in Boulder County would argue that the new and more expensive proposal is an improvement over what they approved in 2004—under the new plan, train service to Longmont, one of FasTracks’ most appealing aspects for Boulder County voters, estimated to be completed by 2017, will now be delayed for at least another two decades, if it’s built at all. Bus service offered as a make-good solution won’t begin for another eight to 10 years.
That assumes the .4-percent sales tax increase passes.
Longmont voters “really feel like they’re being thrown under the bus,” House District 11 Rep. Jonathan Singer quipped humorlessly while addressing the RTD board.
It was only in January that member communities in the eight-county metro area were told by RTD that FasTracks, a sprawling new rail/bus system meant to connect Longmont to Parker—with a northwest rail line running from Longmont to Denver’s Union Station—was nearly doubling in price and needed to be downsized.
People in Longmont are feeling ripped off.
“It’s been $70-plus million that we’ve sent and we’re getting nothing out of it,” said Longmont Mayor Pro Tem Gabe Santos. “I haven’t seen any investment except a promissory note for $17 million for our [proposed] station at First and Terry. All we are seeing is cuts and a promise that ‘maybe we’ll get to Longmont in 2028 or 2034.’
“This is a regional transportation district, and we’re part of the region,” he continued, “but you’re pushing us aside like we’re the end of the line.”
Santos said there’s even been talk of Longmont pulling out of RTD and FasTracks altogether.
The FasTracks system is a victim of a “perfect storm” of economic crises, said RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas. When the project’s cost analysis began in 2002 no one predicted the rising cost of construction materials due to high demand from China, India and Brazil, she said. No one foresaw the recession of 2008, and no one predicted the collapse in sales tax collection due to a severe downturn in consumer spending.
She called the original cost estimate of $4.7 billion “obviously way too optimistic.”
“Part of the challenge here is that, without question, people voted for something in 2004 that they believed they were going to get,” she said. “They want their improvements as soon as possible, but we all have to face the reality that we have.”
The reality is that the FasTracks project is broke. It can limp along funded only by the current tax, but Tonilas couldn’t estimate when (or even if) the entire system would be completed and people in Longmont would have a train. Santos guessed it would be sometime around 2070, “when I’m 100 years old.”
Even if a new tax passes, there will be no train in Longmont’s immediate future.
“The $7.4 billion is to complete all of FasTracks and the Northwest Rail line to Church Ranch Boulevard” in Westminster, Tonilas said, “but continuing it to Longmont is what we don’t have real solid figures on at this point.”
There’s little question community leaders in Boulder County feel sandbagged by the new price tag, a feeling that was compounded by RTD’s need for them to choose an alternate plan to put before voters in a matter of weeks. Muckle said he’s been in more meetings about FasTracks since he was elected in November “than all of the other meetings I’ve had as mayor combined.”
Stakeholder communities originally had until March 1 to pick one of three choices to put before voters in November. They included:
Doubling the cost of the Northwest rail line from an estimated $894 million to $1.7 billion to account for what Tonilas characterized as an up-front payoff to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which owns the tracks between the Church Ranch Boulevard station in Westminster and the one proposed for Longmont. BNSF needs the money for improvements to the rail, she said. Despite the huge cost increase, the rail still wouldn’t be completed until 2024, at the earliest.
Pay for the rail line incrementally, with the goal of eventually reaching Longmont sometime in the distant future, but provide in the meantime Bus Rapid Transit service (BRT) between Longmont and Church Ranch, with stops along the way in Boulder and Louisville. The BRT would end when and if the rail line is ever constructed.
Scrap plans for a Northwest rail line altogether.
Not surprisingly, the consortium of Boulder County stakeholders didn’t like any of these ideas and balked at the suggestion of making such an important decision in such a short period of time. The U.S. 36 Mayors/Commissioners Coalition (MCC) worried that information was incomplete and that cost estimates were, once again, inaccurate. In a letter written by Muckle on behalf of MCC, he notes that in a separate meeting with BNSF, the railroad was willing to consider a phased approach to financing upgrades to its rail lines, the opposite of what RTD says.
On March 5, RTD suggested yet another option, a hybrid of the others that funds the rail to Church Ranch, implements bus service between there and Longmont by 2020 and builds out the train to Longmont incrementally.
Singer told the RTD board that some legislators have asked him whether Longmont is even part of the RTD metro area, since it’s getting the short end of the deal compared to other metro-area communities that have already benefited from the original sales tax increase.
The rail debacle has created rifts. Santos said RTD “bought off” other communities by including rail to Westminster and placating Boulder and Boulder County leaders with the promise of additional bus service. Muckle said there was little support on the Louisville City Council to back a plan that didn’t include train service at least as far as Louisville, which isn’t part of the hybrid option.
The process, he said, moved too fast for everyone to find common ground.
“We’re trying to get a regional transit system done in a couple of months,” Muckle said in an interview in early March.
There was reason to move quickly. RTD is required to submit its annual financial analysis to the Denver Regional Council of Governments to double check its math, a process that takes at least a few months. In order to place a sales tax increase on the November ballot—and begin what will surely be a challenging campaign to convince voters to approve it—it had to act quickly to approve a plan.
It was clear at the RTD board meeting that its directors were determined to do just that, even if the determination sometimes sounded forced.
“I’m committed to completing a promise that was made to people,” said Director Lorraine Anderson. “This is not just a Longmont issue, but a whole metro issue. In order to complete FasTracks in a timely fashion, we have to have a sales tax increase.”
She added that the increase would allow a rail line to Longmont to be completed by 2038, “hopefully.”
“Whatever the price,” added Director Matt Cohen, “let’s just get it done sooner than later.”