Colorado leaders finally appear to be ready to fund RTD. But there are strings attached

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An RTD light rail train pulls out of the Decatur-Federal station, Aug. 12, 2022.

Public transportation advocates were jubilant on Thursday as they marched from one of the Regional Transportation District’s busiest hubs in downtown Denver to the state Capitol.

After years of pushing for state investment and being denied, the advocates finally had something to celebrate: a bill, backed by legislative leaders and Gov. Jared Polis, that could mean tens of millions of new dollars annually to help expand transit services across the state — including at RTD.

“We just don't have enough service,” said Danny Katz, executive director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a long-time advocate for public transportation. “Having a significant amount of new money will improve our transit service and that's why we support this bill.”

Public transit supporters carrying signs supporting air pollution bill that funds for RTD.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Henry Stiles with Environment Colorado, left, and Danny Katz, executive director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, lead a "walking bus" as they march to the state Capitol in Denver with other transit advocates on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

The bill, which had its first committee hearing in the Senate Thursday, creates the funding stream through a new fee on drilling projects in a bargain designed to head off a political battle between the oil and gas industry and environmental groups.

But the new money for RTD would also come with strings attached. 

The introduced version directs the transit agency to prioritize the completion of two unfinished rail lines — the B Line to Boulder and Longmont, and the N Line to Denver’s northern suburbs. In addition, the bill requires RTD to use $190 million of its own savings before it could access another pot of money within the bill for train projects.

Some members of the RTD board say those two directives amount to the legislature and governor bigfooting the transit agency. The RTD board has discussed for years how and whether the agency should complete the four unfinished rail lines left over from the FasTracks program that voters approved in 2004. 

The B Line to Boulder and Longmont in particular has been a thorn in RTD’s side since cost overruns indefinitely delayed the project more than a decade ago. Local officials and Polis himself have kept constant pressure on RTD to keep the project alive.

Finishing the incomplete FasTracks lines, though, would cost at least $2 billion for only middling ridership returns. The B Line alone would cost $1.5 billion according to a 2019 RTD report. The agency is now studying a rush hour-only line to Boulder and Longmont, after prodding from Polis, which might be cheaper but would carry even fewer people. 

Such difficult math is a big reason why some board members have recently suggested RTD repurpose its $190 million in FasTracks savings for other projects like new rapid bus lines or bus stop improvements. Advocates, including Katz, have also suggested in the past that the train plans should be dropped.

But legislative champions say the bill is meant to protect voters who’ve been paying RTD’s FasTracks taxes for nearly two decades without seeing a mile of rail in their communities.

“We think it's important that if you go to the voters and you ask for a tax increase, that you produce the results of what voters said yes to,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

A spokesperson for Polis echoed Fenberg, pointing out that RTD would likely be the biggest financial beneficiary of the bill. 

“It’s critical, and clear to Coloradans, that if [RTD is] to receive new state investments they expand service, do better, and improve on delivering transit services that people can rely on by fulfilling the commitment they made to voters and instilling transparency and accountability measures to drive better outcomes like increased ridership,” Shelby Wieman wrote in a statement.

In a statement, an RTD spokesperson said the prospect of new state funding was “very welcome news,” and said the agency would work with the governor’s office and the legislature on the bill.

The RTD board won’t take a position on the bill before the session ends. But a small survey showed hesitant support. 

The 15 elected members of the board don’t have time to meet before the legislative session ends next week, said board chair Erik Davidson. Davidson, however, and a handful of other directors said they supported the funding within the bill.

“It feels great to have the state and the public talking about increasing and bolstering investment in transit,” Davidson said. 

Davidson declined to comment on the details of the bill. But other directors were vocal about their concerns. Doug Tisdale, who represents Highlands Ranch, Centennial and Cherry Hills Village, called the bill’s authors “parochial” for singling out two unfinished rail lines but not others — including one in Tisdale’s district.

“I recognize that that comes from undoubtedly strong words from people in a position of power who are from the north,” Tisdale said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Fenberg, the Senate President, said the bill singles out the B and N line projects because local communities along those proposed lines have been “begging” for them for years. 

“We want to make sure that voters are getting the projects that they were promised, that frankly should have happened years ago,” he said. “And we think that's an appropriate role for the state to play.”

In fact, Boulder and nearby communities were promised more in the 2004 FasTracks plan than other cities. RTD, pressured by communities in the northwest, included plans for both a rapid bus line between Denver and Boulder and rail. The B Line is still mostly unfinished, but the bus line opened in 2016.

Tisdale also believes the legislature doesn’t have the authority to tell RTD how it should spend its FasTracks savings. But, he added, the bill still had his “reluctant” support.

“It is a gift horse,” he said. “And I’m not super inclined to look it in the mouth.”

Public transit supporters carrying signs supporting air pollution bill that funds for RTD.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Alana Miller, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean energy policy in Colorado, marches to the state Capitol in Denver with other transit advocates on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

JoyAnn Ruscha, whose district is close to another unfinished FasTracks project in central Denver, said she was glad state leaders were “finally taking transit funding more seriously.”

But she also characterized this and other RTD-focused bills this session as amounting to state leaders “coming at RTD with a baseball bat.” She worries the funding bill could compel RTD to pursue rail projects that she believes it can’t afford.

“It does … set an unrealistic expectation that RTD can squeeze money out of a rock,” she said. “And perpetuates a myth that we are sitting on money that we could use to easily build a train to Boulder and Longmont and we're just refusing to do so. And that is not the case.”

Polis and legislative Democrats want RTD, the Colorado Department of Transportation and other entities to collaborate with the new Front Range Passenger Rail district in planning and building new rail lines that would overlap in some places. Another bill from them would levy fees on rental cars to raise millions in “seed money” meant to attract big federal rail dollars. 

Fenberg, the Senate President, characterized the transit bills collectively as a “historic investment.” 

“It's not just the rail projects,” he said. “But it is ongoing, long-term, big investments in rail and connectivity all over the state.”

Beyond the drama over expensive, ambitious rail projects, one rider is excited at the prospect of more bus service. 

Liz Engle, who joined the transit advocates on their march to the Capitol on Thursday, often rides RTD buses from her home in Aurora to her overnight nursing shifts in downtown Denver. 

That nine-mile journey often takes 90 minutes, she said, a slog of a commute that has her excited at the prospect of better bus service. Trains are great, she said, but they also take years to build. 

“The more convenient, comfortable, frequent and accessible things like the bus [become], the more people would use it,” she said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the composition of RTD's FasTracks savings fund and to correct a reference to the district boundaries of Commissioner JoyAnn Ruscha.