Will I see RTD’s northwestern rail line in my lifetime?

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 7/16/19

The Denver Post article back on July 10, “RTD’s Eyes Turn North,” made it all seem so exciting and promising. Was it saying that those of us in the north/northwest part of RTD’s region will …

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Will I see RTD’s northwestern rail line in my lifetime?

Posted

The Denver Post article back on July 10, “RTD’s Eyes Turn North,” made it all seem so exciting and promising.

Was it saying that those of us in the north/northwest part of RTD’s region will finally see some action to extend commuter rail service beyond Westminster’s popular 71st Avenue B-Line station?

Does it mean that RTD is serious about coming up with a plan to finance, design, build and operate the full corridor — something promised back in 2004 when voters approved the six-corridor FastTrack’s Plan and authorized an increase in the RTD sales tax?

Did it mean that the taxpayers of Westminster, Broomfield, Louisville, Boulder, Longmont and surrounding areas would finally get commuter rail service, something we have been paying taxes for since 2005?

Hmmm.

It takes money, money, money

Well, folks, I don’t want to be the constant naysayer when it comes to RTD providing northern service, but you should be skeptical about seeing full passenger rail service extended all the way to Longmont — if you read the whole article.

While the RTD Board of Directors adopted a resolution in April expressing its commitment to finishing the Northwest Rail Line as promised in 2004, the initial staff work on how to accomplish this herculean task leaves a lot of doubt and skepticism. Sure, there are ways to get there from here, but all of it comes down to a significant outlay of generating and spending plenty of new money.

Their estimate for capital improvements for full service all the way to Longmont is $1.5 and $1.7 billion and this would be money which RTD does not have and is not likely to get.

Let me explain.

We’re not alone!

The report brought up an interesting alternative to the full build-out of the Northwest Rail Line. It would provide peak service daily between Longmont and the Westminster station (which means all the way to Denver Union Station). It would consist of three daily commuter trains running with an estimated cost of $710 to $800 million, per RTD.

However, the Northwest Rail Line is not RTD’s only unfinished corridor project. RTD is also faced with finding funding for the Central Rail Extension, North Metro Completion and the Southwest Extension.

So, our Northwest Rail Line is competing for funding with these remaining capital projects.

The report addresses three basic scenarios for funding the capital improvements for the Westminster to Longmont extension, along with the other remaining capital projects:

The first scenario simply extends the existing FastTrack’s sales and use tax without any new bonding authority.

The second scenario adds bonding authority, which would require voter approval.

The third scenario adds in a 0.1% sale and use tax increase — again, something that would require voter approval.

Scenarios and timelines

The first scenario is basically just a status quo approach. There are no voter approvals required, but it does not accelerate the timeline to get commuter rail service built and in operation from Westminster to Longmont. That is still longer than my lifetime.

The second scenario requires voter approval for more bonding capacity. This does not involve a tax increase and I could see voters across RTD supporting this approach. RTD estimates that the peak service alternative could be in operation by 2042 and full service to Longmont could be available by 2046.

The third scenario requires voter approval for both the increased bonding capacity as well as the sales and use tax increase but it moves up the timeline significantly. RTD projects that the peak service alternative could be in place by 2026 and full service to Longmont could be in operation by 2032. That is, if voters give approval.

My hunch is that this approach is dead on arrival.

Taxpayers have been clear in previous elections on any transportation tax increase — NO, NO, NO — and those have been for comparably popular highway and road funding ballot propositions. A commuter rail proposal would likely have less appeal based on who benefits from it.

It’s a Catch-22 for RTD and for us in the northwestern part of the metro area. Unfortunately, I don’t think this dog will hunt.

Insight from an opinion survey is warranted

So, I suggest we encourage our RTD Directors from this part of the district to push for a professionally conducted opinion poll on the three basic scenarios and see what the lay of the land might be. It does not hurt to ask.

We obviously need to move ahead one way or the other on extending the Northwest Rail Line. Perhaps the answer lies in doing the remaining 35 miles in segments.

Hmmm.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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