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Light rail burdens low-income Denver metro transit riders

by Randal O’Toole

When Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) opened its West light-rail line last April, it naturally cancelled parallel bus service. But, for many people, riding the light rail cost a lot more than the bus. This effectively made transit unaffordable for some low-income workers, who now drive to work.

A group called 9to5, which represents working women, formally surveyed more than 500 people who live near the West light-rail line, and informally interviewed hundreds more. It found that the light rail had put a significant additional burden on low-income families. In one case, someone who was commuting to work by bus for $2.25 per trip now has to pay $4.00 per trip to take the light rail, a 78 percent increase in cost. 9to5 points out that the cost of gasoline to drive the same distance would be about $1.25.

Residents were also concerned about gentrification of their neighborhoods. (which, the report doesn’t mention, is often tax-subsidized). Others felt racially profiled: “My family cannot take the trains because the police always come to talk to us first,” said one Latino.

On one hand, the people designing rail transit are middle-class planners. They want to design a transit system that they think they and their friends would want to ride. Cost is of little concern, partly because they know someone else pays most of that cost and partly because, for them, the difference between $4.00 and $2.25 doesn’t sound that great.

On the other hand, the authors of this report seem to naively believe that government agencies have the interests of low-income families at heart. They urge cities to stop gentrification when the cities want that gentrification to boost long-term tax revenues. The authors want transit agencies to use income-based pricing for transit passes, when the agencies are desperate for revenues because they spent all available funds building expensive and obsolete rail lines. The authors want RTD to increase bus service, which RTD promised to do when it asked voters to support rail construction in 2004, but cost overruns have made it impossible for the agency to do so.

The report does point out the irony that RTD and its rail construction programs are funded by sales taxes, which are regressive. But despite their lip service about the needs of low-income people, the planners who designed Denver’s rail projects don’t care. Their goals are to build as much as fast as possible regardless of whether what they are building is useful, cost-effective, or helpful to transit-dependent families.

Far from seeking more progressive funding, RTD really wants to ask voters for another regressive sales-tax increase, but has put off doing so because voters remember about the cost overruns and other problems since they voted for the last tax increase. Even if RTD were to get that tax increase, it would all go into more super-expensive rail construction, and not for bus improvements or fare relief for low-income riders.

Many contractors are getting rich helping to build Denver rail lines. Women and minorities, the report shows, are most likely to lose. Given that rail transit is just as expensive to maintain as it is to build, there is no chance that RTD will ever be able to implement any of the recommendations in this report. The only hope will be that activists elsewhere use this report to stop rail projects in other cities.

Randal O’Toole is transportation policy center director at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. This piece originally appeared in his blog, the Antiplanner.