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Light rail alone won't solve problem

Opinion Editorial
July 6, 1999

By Stephen R. Mueller

I read with interest Jack Major’s Viewpoint in the April 2-8 issue. Mr. Major asked the question, “Whose problem is I-25 corridor?” His answer was that the solution lies solely within the purview of the Colorado Department of Transportation and therefore CDOT should fund the proposed light rail system parallel to I-25. I disagree for several reasons.

First, CDOT shouldn’t be expected to expend scarce public transportation tax dollars (which are collected on a statewide basis) for a project that will only serve a very small fraction of the people actually using the corridor and will be of no use to someone from Durango, Grand Junction, Limon or Yuma. Until the state’s highways are restored to acceptable conditions, luxuries like light rail should receive no state funds. CDOT needs to focus on assuring the vitality of the backbone of our transportation network: the state highway system.

Everyone in the state depends on roads for their own personal transportation, as well as the delivery of consumer goods. Rural communities are especially dependent upon the highways, because only a few are served by rail — and CDOT needs every resource available to maintain and expand these economic lifelines.

It is hard to justify CDOT paying for the construction of a shiny new trolley line in Denver when the trucks have a tough time driving to Walden because of the poor pavement conditions. Or when cars are being thrown out of alignment by potholes on Colfax, Colorado Boulevard and C-470. Or when people are sitting in traffic jams on Wadsworth, I-70 or I-25. There are so many needed highway projects all over the state; CDOT simply can’t afford to get into the railroad business anytime soon.

Second, Mr. Major is of the mistaken impression that light rail will relieve traffic congestion on the southeast corridor. The engineers who prepared the Major Investment Study (MIS) clearly state that, currently, mass transit delivers only 1.7 percent of the work trips to the Denver Technological Center. If we spend more than three quarters of a billion dollars to build a light rail system next to I-25, they claim that transit work-trip ridership to the DTC will increase to 3.7 percent. Even if the claimed 2 percent increase is not just a wishful exageration, the light rail’s impact on the I-25 traffic congestion would be negligible.

Newly elected Gov. Bill Owens should be commended for recognizing the need for a real solution to the I-25 problem. He has demonstrated the courage to confront Colorado’s problems head-on. Mr. Major and his pie-in-the-sky panacea of rail lines to the DTC, Golden, Castle Rock and everywhere else will take us nowhere, while gobbling up the resources that we need to maintain and expand the state highway system.

The need for additional highway lanes on I-25 is obvious. The challenge is how to guarantee congestion-free driving in the future, and the Indepenence Institute is currently researching the alternatives that can work in Colorado. The answer lies in applying free-market economic principles to the transportation network, not in government-subsidized light rail expansion.

There are no documented cases of long-term traffic congestion relief as a result of the construction of the unbelievably expensive light rail projects in the world. Yet special interest groups and naive transit advocates persist in the view that Denver will be different.

Stephen Mueller is a senior fellow in transportation at the Independence Institute.  This article originally ran in the Denver Business Journal July 1999.