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The Full Truth About Fastracks

IP-7-2004 (June 2004)
Author: Randal O’Toole

PDF of full Issue Paper
Scribd version of full Issue Paper

Executive Summary

Four years ago, the Union Pacific Railroad bought all 16,700 miles of the combined Rio Grande and Southern Pacific railway lines for $4.1 billion. At an an average cost of less than $250,000 per mile of track, the purchase also included hundreds of locomotives, thousands of rail cars, and numerous other properties.

If voters approve, Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) says it will spend $4.7 billion building about 240 miles of track and 36 miles of busways, plus buy 159 rail vehicles, 10 buses, and a few other properties. This represents an average cost of $34 million per mile—140 times as much as the Union Pacific paid for each mile of Southern Pacific and Rio Grande track!

To sell this plan to Denver voters, RTD and its supporters have greatly exaggerated the benefits of rail transit while understating the costs. Supporters say FasTracks will cost-effectively reduce Denver’s congestion, increase job accessibility, clean the air, and promote economic development. In fact, it will do none of these things.

A clearheaded look at RTD’s FasTracks plans and DRCOG’s analysis of those plans reveals the truth: RTD’s proposed rail lines will cost more than almost any public works project in Denver history, yet they will accomplish very little.

  • FasTracks is far too expensive: FasTracks will cost taxpayers at least $8.3 billion, and possibly much more. Between now and 2025, the sales tax increase required for FasTracks will cost more than $2,000 for each Denver-area resident. The 2025 sales tax per resident will be $144, in exchange for which residents will get an average of just six more transit rides that year—meaning each new ride will cost $24. Including all construction and finance charges, FasTracks will cost billions more than stated by RTD, and the tax increase is likely to never sunset.
  • FasTracks won’t relieve congestion: DRCOG says FasTracks will take less than 0.5 percent of cars off the road each weekday, and only 1.4 percent during rush-hour. Even in FasTracks corridors, where the system is supposed to have the greatest effects, rail transit will increase rush-hour speeds an average of less than 1 mile per hour.
  • FasTracks isn’t fast: The proposed FasTracks light-rail lines will average just 24 miles per hour. Commuter-rail lines will average 41 miles per hour, but the bus-rapid transit line will average 51 miles per hour. RTD also plans to operate the buses far more frequently, shortening the wait typical transit riders must endure at stations.
  • FasTracks will pollute the air: DRCOG says FasTracks will reduce carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and particulate emissions by less than 1 percent, which is nearly insignificant. On the other hand, FasTracks will increase emissions of nitrogen oxide, an ozone precursor, by 2.66 percent. This is significant as ozone is the only pollutant for which Denver still violates federal air standards.
  • FasTracks won’t help low-income people: FasTracks is designed to attract middle-class auto drivers out of their cars. But Denver’s real mobility problem is that nearly 60,000 households in the region, most of them poor, lack access to an automobile. FasTracks will do little to help these people. The high fixed cost of repaying loans could even threaten what little mobility RTD’s bus system now provides them, especially if a recession leads to sales tax shortfalls, forcing RTD to cut bus service as has happened in San Jose.
  • FasTracks will harm neighborhoods: Local officials talk about “economic development,” but what they often mean is clearing existing homes and businesses and replacing them with high-density transit-oriented developments. Experience in other cities indicates that such developments will require further subsidies and that, because most trips from these developments are by auto, they will add to corridor congestion.

While FasTracks will not reduce congestion, clean the air, or improve regional mobility, its high cost precludes other projects that can measurably improve traffic flows and air quality. RTD’s FasTracks plan requires $932 million in federal funds. If these funds were spent instead as seed money for a regional network of high-occupancy/toll lanes and bus-rapid transit, auto drivers would enjoy far less congestion and transit riders would get faster, better service. Moreover, this could be done without new taxes.

Voter approval of FasTracks will result in high taxes, congestion, and gridlock. Voter rejection will tell RTD, DRCOG, and the Colorado Department of Transportation that Denver wants effective, low-cost solutions to congestion, not an expensive rail system that few people will use.