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Reward rather than Award for RTD

Opinion Editorial
June 16, 2008

Recently, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) named Denver’s RTD the best transit agency in America. RTD is to be congratulated for receiving this award, but I have to ask, just what criteria did the APTA use to bestow this honor?

Was it RTD’s ability to attract transit riders and fill up its buses and light-rail cars? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2006 the average RTD light-rail car had just 13.5 riders on board (compared with a national average of 26), while the average RTD bus had just 10 riders (compared with a national average of 11).

RTD’s light-rail cars have room for about 140 passengers, which means they are, on average, less than 10 percent full. That’s less than a single-occupancy Chevy Suburban. So that can’t be why APTA gave RTD its award.

Was it RTD’s ability to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions? In 2006, RTD’s light rail used as much energy and emitted 15 percent more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average SUV. RTD’s buses were worse than the average automobile. So getting people out of their cars and onto RTD actually hastens global warming.

Not that RTD has been getting people out of their cars. Back in the early 1980s, before RTD started planning light-rail lines, it was carrying all of 1.5 percent of passenger travel in the Denver-Boulder region. In 2006, after opening two major light-rail lines, RTD’s share of passenger travel was down to 1.4 percent.

What about commuters? The Census Bureau says that, in 1980, RTD carried 6.4 percent of the region’s commuters to work. By 2006, it was down to 5.1 percent.

Perhaps APTA was commending RTD for its ability to save taxpayers’ money. Except that RTD’s southwest and T-Rex light-rail lines both had cost overruns, when compared with their original projections, of close to 50 percent. The FasTracks project, which was originally supposed to cost $4.7 billion, is now expected to cost at least $6.2 billion. So that can’t be it either.

Maybe APTA appreciated RTD’s ability to respond to a crisis, such as today’s high fuel prices. But RTD’s response to those prices has been to propose cutting transit services and raising fares. When RTD is planning to spend billions to build rail lines that won’t be operational for six or seven years, it can’t be distracted with today’s travel concerns.

What else could RTD have done to attract APTA’s attention? Last year, RTD gave Siemens Engineering, one of APTA’s largest members, a no-bid contract for $187 million worth of light-rail cars. By an amazing coincidence, Siemens gave the FasTracks political campaign donations of more than $100,000 in 2004.

The biggest beneficiaries of the multi-billion-dollar FasTracks project are railcar manufacturers like Siemens, contractors such as Kiewit (which gave the campaign $55,000), and consulting firms like Parsons-Brinckerhoff (which gave the FasTracks campaign more than $70,000) and CH2MHill (which gave the campaign $59,000). By another amazing coincidence, these companies are all members of APTA.

In short, APTA is not rewarding RTD for running an efficient operation, being environmentally friendly, or reducing traffic congestion. Instead, APTA loves RTD because RTD is making APTA’s members rich.

Good job, RTD!