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Bus-rapid Transit Better in These Hard Times

Opinion Editorial
February 24, 2009

Here is a little-known fact to think about when contemplating another tax increase for FasTracks: The Regional Transportation District runs the emptiest light-rail trains in the country.

In 2007, according to data RTD gave to the Federal Transit Administration, Denver light-rail cars carried an average of fewer than 14 people, compared with 24 on light-rail cars in the rest of the country.

That means RTD’s light-rail cars, which can hold more than 180 people, run less than 10 percent full. They might seem full at rush hour, but that just means they carry even fewer than 14 people the rest of the day.

People who think RTD’s light-rail trains run full – or that they carry as many people as four freeway lanes or that they are an efficient way of moving people – need to look at the real numbers.

Rarely has a government agency used so many feints to justify spending so much money on a project that will produce so little benefit. Here are just a few facts that RTD doesn’t want you to know:

* Denver’s light-rail lines use as much energy and generate more greenhouse gases per passenger-mile than the average SUV.

Yet RTD maintains light rail is good for the environment.

* Denver-area traffic grows more every five months than all the cars FasTracks is expected to take off the road.

Yet RTD implies FasTracks will significantly reduce congestion.

* The average mile of Denver’s light-rail lines carry less than a fifth as many people each day as a typical Denver freeway lane.

Yet RTD frequently claims light rail moves as many people as four or more freeway lanes.

RTD spreads these and other deceptions to keep people from thinking about the real solution to FasTracks’ financial woes: bus-rapid transit.

Bus-rapid transit costs less and can move more people than light rail.

Take, for example, the Northwest Corridor, where RTD proposes to run both bus-rapid transit and trains. RTD predicts that the bus line will cost one-third as much but carry three times as many people as the rail line. The rail line will cost taxpayers more than $50 for every rider, while the Northwest bus line will cost less than $5.

Long before FasTracks is complete, Colorado could build a network of high-occupancy/toll lanes throughout the Denver metro area that will cost less to build than FasTracks. But Denver doesn’t have to wait for new highway lanes: buses running nearly as fast on existing roads can be put into service right away at a tiny fraction of the cost of FasTracks.

Studies show transit riders care more about frequency and speed than whether the vehicle they are on has rubber tires or steel wheels. Yet RTD wants taxpayers to spend billions of dollars and wait nearly a decade before getting the same quality of service that bus-rapid transit could provide in just a few months.

Despite the huge cost advantage of bus-rapid transit, RTD is seriously considering asking voters for another 40 percent increase in its sales taxes to pay for the bloated FasTracks plan. RTD recently published the results of a survey claiming that most voters would support such a tax increase.

What RTD didn’t tell you about the survey was that 85 percent of the people who responded said they rarely or never ride RTD, and only 5 percent said they ride it every day.

People who never ride transit are most likely to support FasTracks if they think it will reduce congestion or protect the environment. Indeed, RTD interviewers make or suggest these claims in the course of the survey. I wonder if the people surveyed would support another tax increase if RTD admitted that FasTracks will only take five months’ worth of traffic off the roads or that Denver’s light rail produces more pollution per passenger-mile than SUVs.

RTD is promoting a wasteful, high-cost transit system that mainly benefits the contractors who will build it, not the people who might ride it and certainly not most of the people who will have to pay for it.

This article first appeared in the Rocky Mountain News, February 21st, 2009.