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As romantic and quaint and hip as it would be to commute between Boulder (and Longmont) and Denver by train, it’s not going to happen any time soon. And it shouldn’t; not with the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe railroad calling the shots. Moreover, the immediate alternative—Bus Rapid Transit (or some version thereof)—is much better.

Yes, there was big talk about commuter rail linking Boulder County with Denver when the original FasTracks tax was passed. But as the details emerged over the cost, frequency and chronic difficulty in dealing with BNSF—a company for which moving people is not their strong suit—the idea turned rancid.

Unlike the dedicated tracks of the rest of the Regional Transit District’s Light Rail system, the Northwest Line would have to share the existing tracks with its owners—Burlington Northern/Santa Fe.

The upside is not having to buy expensive rights-of-way. Just drop the passenger cars on and go. But by nearly every measure—cost, frequency, convenience and flexibility—Bus Rapid Transit is superior to Commuter Rail

According to RTD, train departures would only be every 20–30 minutes during rush hour and once an hour other times. But that, too, is dependent on freight train traffic. In areas where there is only a single set of tracks, the commuter train is going to be left hanging out on a siding waiting for a coal train to pass, adding 10–15 minutes to the estimated 41 minute travel time from Boulder to Denver.

By comparison, the BRT takes 45 minutes to get from Boulder to Denver, but it leaves every three minutes during rush hour (every seven minutes for Longmont and Louisville) and every 15 minutes all other times. Schedule, schmedual; just show up and in less time than it takes to check the latest Tweet from Louis CK, you’re on your way downtown (or home).

But the biggest issue is cost. Years ago, RTD plugged in what was considered a conservatively high number of half a billion dollars for bringing commuter trains to the Northwest BNSF corridor. The railroad recently shot that down in flames with its price tag of $1.7 billion. On top of this, there is no long-term cost security for RTD in this deal. It would only be leasing the tracks from BNSF, which could raise its price in future years, alter the terms of service (sorry, you now have to wait for both the freight and coal trains to pass) and otherwise make it hell to commute
by rail.

The only reason we’re having this modal debate is that RTD needs us to approve an additional 0.04 percent sales tax (four pennies on a $10 purchase) to get it done before the next ice age. The RTD Board recently approved going forward with a hybrid of the two; extending commuter rail from Denver to Westminster and installing dedicated BRT lanes to Boulder and Longmont.

RTD needs the additional tax revenue to keep its excellent service and frequency up as well as getting the Northwest corridor BRT online. But this plan may be for nothing. A recent poll shows 51 percent support for the additional sales tax. Yet despite gasoline pushing $4 a gallon, the cowardly calculus of RTD deems this margin too thin to put the question to voters in November. This would be a big mistake. We need these improvements to our regional transit system now, not decades from now. Let the voters decide this year. If they say no, ask again. It took Boulder County three times to get its initial open space tax passed. Leaders knew buying open space was the good and right thing to do—and so is growing and improving our transit system.

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email no info send march17th/09

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