A majority of the Regional Transportation District board said Tuesday they support the use of existing savings for a train to Boulder and Longmont to fund another project — a far cheaper rapid bus line between the two cities.
That’s a step further than where the board was just a month ago when a majority signaled its support for redirecting only future savings to other needs. The Denver-area transit agency faces a pandemic-induced $166 million gap for 2021 and is rummaging through every proverbial couch cushion to bridge it.
The line, which as of now only reaches Westminster, was to be the longest in the 2004 voter-approved FasTracks plan. RTD put it on an all-but-indefinite hold, much to the chagrin of taxpayers in the northwest metro including Gov. Jared Polis, after the Great Recession pummeled sales tax revenue and right-of-way costs skyrocketed.
Still, RTD continued to sock away millions of dollars a year toward it and other unfinished FasTracks lines. There’s about $120 million in that account now, which, ironically, the board created in 2012 by diverting money that was supposed to go to increased bus service.
The most recent estimate to complete the northwest rail line put costs at $1.5 billion, daily ridership at just 4,100, and an opening date in 2050, leading local transportation advocates to question its practicality. Now, a board majority appears willing to raid the piggy bank, pushing completion further into the future.
Six directors said they want to use the savings for a variety of current needs.
“I understand that it's a savings account for building a train to Boulder, that the governor is very committed to,” said board member Kate Williams, who represents central Denver. “But right now, I'm not interested in what we're committed to building — a $1.5 billion train — I'm interested in giving people transportation today. People who need to get to work. People who need to get to the doctor."
Shontel Lewis, who represents northeast Denver, said her constituents have immediate needs that RTD should address. The agency is currently at 60 percent of pre-pandemic service levels, and likely won’t be able to increase it anytime soon.
"We are holding onto money for maybe 2040 or 2060, but we have people in 2020, today, that are reliant on our services,” she said.
Board member Claudia Folska, from Aurora, pointed out that a comprehensive 2014 study of mobility options in the northwest area recommended a slate of new rapid bus lines there.
"If we build all of these BRTs, I think it's appropriate for RTD to be off the hook for the northwest Rail,” Folska said, adding that, “I think it's appropriate, sometime in the future, to have a very frank conversation with all of our constituents. And it may be, like many stakeholders have said, like [Colorado Energy Office Executive Director] Will Toor, that the BRT is a much better option."
RTD is currently working with a number of other agencies, including the Colorado Department of Transportation, on a BRT-like line between Boulder and Longmont. RTD has struggled to come up with the $33 million it needs for its end of the construction costs.
A handful of board members said they only support taking money from the FasTracks savings account if it’s used for the Boulder-Longmont BRT project. Others, including those directors who represent areas still waiting for FasTracks lines, oppose drawing down the account.
“It's more than a cash fund, it's more than a reserve,” said board member Troy Whitmore. “It's really the only substance to those folks who haven't received what we promised them in 2004. It's a pledge."
Other opponents said RTD should keep the reserves in case the agency needs them to match a possible federal grant. One such source might be Amtrak. It said recently it wants to invest in a Front Range passenger rail system that could go through Boulder and Longmont, but such a plan is far from certain.
Board member Jeff Walker said commuters between Boulder and Denver are already well-served by the Flatiron Flyer bus.
“Our mission is to move people,” Walker said. “No matter what mode, as long as we are moving people and providing good service, reliable service, clean, safe, etc., I think that's what's important. I think the mode is a distant second."
Here's a list of the board members who said they would support using current FasTracks savings for more immediate needs, including the BRT project between Boulder and Longmont and those opposed:
- Angie Rivera-Malpiede*
- Peggy Catlin*
- Claudia Folska
- Shontel Lewis
- Natalie Menten
- Ken Mihalik
- Doug Tisdale*
- Jeff Walker
- Kate Williams
*only for BRT project
- Bob Broom
- Vince Buzek
- Shelley Cook
- Lynn Guissinger
- Judy Lubow
- Troy Whitmore
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that a majority of the board supports using the FasTracks savings account only for the Boulder-Longmont rapid bus line. A smaller number of directors support using the money for a variety of other needs.