The Regional Transportation District will spend $8 million to study a scaled-back plan to extend commuter rail service from Denver to Boulder and Longmont.
The agency’s board voted 12 to 3 Tuesday night to approve the study intended to move up the project that is decades behind schedule.
RTD committed to building the 41-mile diesel-powered B Line as part of the 2004 voter-approved FasTracks plan to build more than 100 miles of new passenger rail lines and improve bus service. RTD later prioritized other rail routes over the B Line when costs came in higher than expected and sales tax proceeds were lower than forecasted.
“We did make a promise to the northwest region,” said RTD board chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede. “But there is old data. And there is extreme power in information, for a new day and to understand where we are and what we need to do to move together.”
The most recent estimate, from 2019, puts the B Line’s full-scale completion date at 2050 and start-up costs totaling more than $1.5 billion. A six-mile stub of the B Line between Union Station and Westminster opened in 2016.
Residents in the northwest metro, including local officials and Gov. Jared Polis, have since pressured RTD to kick-start the project. RTD staff responded by floating a plan for rush-hour only service — three Denver-bound trains in the morning and three Longmont-bound trains in the evening.
Early estimates for the “peak service plan” from RTD staff put ridership at just 800 people per day and construction cost of $708 million. That lopsided cost-benefit ratio, in conjunction with the existing popular Denver-to-Boulder express bus routes, has prompted some RTD board members to say the agency should abandon the B Line extension entirely.
“Yes, there are political pressures. But we have a fiduciary duty to the entire region," board member Bobby Dishell said at the Tuesday meeting, referencing the high debt load RTD took on to fund the existing FasTracks projects. RTD forecasts its debt payments will eat up about 25 percent of its $1 billion in revenue next year.
Board member Erik Davidson, who represents the Broomfield area, agreed that RTD’s debt burden is too high, but he said the agency has other problems it needs to address as well.
“No one is saying right now that we should go spend $1.5 billion, least of all me,” Davidson said.
He added: “But it’s a huge problem from a credibility standpoint that we have not engaged in taking some steps forward to look at what the floor of this would cost.”
RTD General Manager and CEO Debra Johnson has said an updated study will give all parties — from RTD to local city councils to the governor’s office — a fresh and common set of facts to inform a future decision about how to proceed.
RTD is also hoping to partner with the state and the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, which, with help from Amtrak, is planning new passenger service between Pueblo and Cheyenne, Wyo. The RTD board on Tuesday also voted to give Johnson the authority to enter a formal agreement with the commission and the Colorado Department of Transportation.
RTD staff say the study should be complete by the end of 2023. The B Line was scheduled to begin service in 2014 at the time of the 2004 FasTracks vote.
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