Jeff Ilseman: RTD: Who Needs It?

(The following was submitted from RTD Board of Directors, District I candidate Jeff Ilseman.)

In 2004 a proponent of FasTracks rang our doorbell and talked with my wife. After listening to the cordial conversation, my right brain, which allegedly focuses on creativity and feeling, thought how great it would be to have a train that my transit-dependent son, then 22 years old, could use to access opportunities that he may not otherwise be able to access.

It wasn’t long until my left brain, which supposedly focuses on reason and critical thinking, questioned how an inflexible centralized system could be the panacea, since everyone has individualized destination needs and lives in neighborhoods scattered throughout the region.After the FasTracks vote passed in 2004, and our RTD sales tax rose to 1 percent, I started attending local RTD “service change” meetings.

Over time I noticed more and more attendees were from the transit-dependent community. Some were elderly, some were visually impaired and some were young or unemployed or underemployed, trying to find a job or stay employed. Some, like me, were advocates helping friends or family members who cannot drive reach their jobs using public transit. The service cutbacks made no sense given that the sales tax rate had been raised, fares were going up and RTD was receiving millions in federal grants.

Ultimately the city, not RTD, formed a Transit Task Force, on which I served, to coordinate efforts between various public and private providers that were assisting the transit-dependent. Along the way, I read the legislative act that governs RTD which declares: “Public transportation services are provided to assist the transit-dependent and the poor, to relieve congestion and to minimize automotive pollution.”

In my Aug. 15 guest opinion, “An Inconvenient Train”, I established an inconvenient truth that the diesel-fueled commuter train (i.e., not light rail) planned for the Northwest Rail Line will be neither good nor fast nor cheap. So, where do we go from here?

First, we need to recognize how we got here. To be politically direct, we elected politicians with optimism bias, who then teamed up with special interest group promoters who couldn’t resist overstating benefits while understating costs, and together we all bit off more than we could chew.

Second, we need to define “good,” “fast” and “cheap,” not only for the northwest corridor but also for RTD in general.

“Good” should mean that RTD continuously measures and improves its performance on how well it is assisting “the transit-dependent and the poor” and reducing congestion (which will minimize automotive pollution). Creating metrics that are clearly understood and acceptable to voters is vital. For the northwest corridor, “good” should mean a realistic alternative that would provide the above-mentioned assistance while reducing congestion, pollution and potential for collisions. The planned Northwest Rail Line significantly increases congestion, pollution and potential for collisions.

“Fast” should mean that total travel time, from door to door, is as fast or faster than normal driving, parking and walking time. For the northwest corridor, “fast” should mean an alternative that is as fast or faster than current express buses. The planned Northwest Rail Line will be up to 21 minutes slower than the current Longmont-to-Denver express buses, or even worse if it has to pull over and wait for freight trains to pass.

“Cheap” starts with developing a wide range of alternatives; then quantifying mobility, environmental and economic development benefits for each alternative; then estimating the dollar cost of each alternative; then ranking in terms of dollars the alternatives that produce enough benefits to satisfy voters. The definition of “cheap” ends with a metric that is clearly understood by and acceptable to you, the voter. One of my favorite metrics is from UC Berkeley’s Transportation Center, which basically is the “taxpayer burden per passenger mile traveled.” For example, they calculated this metric for 54 U.S. rail investments since 1970. The best-performing rail in this study is Denver’s 5.3-mile Central Corridor, which after subtracting fares, costs you, the taxpayer, 22 cents per passenger-mile traveled. Is this cheap? Only you, the voter, can determine how much you are willing to pay and only if you are given a metric that you can clearly understand.

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About Chris Rodriguez

Chris is the editor/publisher of LightningRod Blog - as well as founder/editor of Wrongmont, Longmont Advocate, Vote!Longmont, Longmont Politics, the LightningRod Radio Network, as well as being the original Longmont Examiner. Chris is a writer and talker - whether it be blogs, podcasts, music, or public speaking. When he's not heard on Air Traffic radio, he can be heard on his podcasts or seen in the local paper causing trouble.

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