Denver Light Rail Implementation Failure

July 10, 2013

Denver's Regional Transportation District (RTD) has been forced to reschedule a telephone town hall meeting that was intended to discuss the future of its Northwest light rail line (part of the FasTracks project) with local residents. Unwarranted optimism and a consistent failure to plan for foreseeable contingencies have led the FasTracks project down the road toward insolvency and incompletion, leaving stakeholder communities with a choice between losing access to the system they paid for or ponying up even more in new taxes. This is not the transit system Denver had bargained for, says Daniel Bier of the Reason Foundation.

When approved by voters in 2004, RTD was expected to build 122 miles of light rail over the course of 12 years for $4.7 billion.

  • To date, only 40 percent of the system -- and only one complete line -- has actually been constructed, about 75 percent of the way through the initial timeline.
  • Its budget has ballooned 57 percent to $7.4 billion, and because of massive cost overruns and revenue shortfalls, RTD does not expect the project to be completed until at least 2044, if ever.
  • In fact, it might never be finished, unless RTD gets new funding from somewhere.

Many of FasTracks' problems can be traced back to flaws in its original proposal:

  • RTD didn't secure rights of way for its corridors or obtain realistic cost estimates of acquiring them before submitting the budget to voters.
  • When it pitched the plan the agency assumed that sales tax revenue would increase 6 percent annually, from 2004 to 2025, which is an unrealistic forecast that never materialized.

Before ground had even been broken in 2007, RTD announced that FasTracks was already a billion dollars over its original budget. Cost overruns would continue to grow to over $2.3 billion during the next few years.

As communities along the corridor debate making changes to the project, they should consider that proven, affordable rapid transit is available in the form of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for a fraction of the cost of light rail. BRT allows buses to operate more like a rail system, using separate highway lanes. Best of all, because its capital costs can be partially offset by automobile user fees, it could actually be built now, without raising taxes or waiting decades for funding to appear. A public-private partnership to build and operate the line would be an effective way to shield justifiably skeptical taxpayers from the risks inherent in these kinds of transit projects.

Source: Daniel Bier, "FasTracks to Nowhere: Denver's Decade-Old Boondoggle," Reason Foundation, June 28, 2013.

 

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