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Unlikely 'Slow Tracks' plan will attract very many riders

Opinion Editorial
May 15, 2004

By Randal O’Toole

Advocates of the Regional Transportation District’s so-called FasTracks plan claim rail transit will attract huge numbers of people out of their cars, thereby reducing congestion and cleaning the air. These claims fade away when exposed to the harsh light of a recent analysis of the plan prepared by the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

The trains on the light-rail lines RTD wants to build would average just 25 mph. That’s hardly fast. Commuter rail trains would go about 40 mph. RTD has bus routes today that average 36 mph, and bus routes in some other cities average more than 50 mph. It seems a more realistic name for RTD’s plan is Slow Tracks.

Partly because the trains would be so slow, DRCOG’s analysis, available at www.drcog.org, says RTD’s plan won’t relieve much congestion. DRCOG estimates that, without any new rail lines, Denver traffic will increase by 63.3 percent by 2025. That could mean a lot more congestion.

Will slow trains relieve that congestion? DRCOG found that RTD’s plan will take less than one-half of 1 percent of the cars off the road.

While RTD’s rail lines will take years to build, Denver traffic increases by a half-percent every three months.

What about rush hour, when traffic is at its worst? DRCOG’s analysis predicts RTD’s trains would take just 1.4 percent of rush-hour traffic off the road. Is that worth the $4.7 billion cost ($7.1 billion including finance charges) of RTD’s plan?

DRCOG’s Metro Vision 2025 plan predicts that, even with more rail transit, the number of miles of congested roads will nearly double and the amount of time people waste sitting in traffic will increase 159 percent in the next 25 years. RTD’s plan would do nearly nothing about these problems.

DRCOG also finds rail transit would have almost no effect on pollution. RTD’s slow trains would actually increase nitrogen oxide, a key component of smog, by 2.66 percent. Most other pollutants fall by less than 1 percent.

The problem is that RTD’s plan calls for spending close to half the region’s transportation capital funds to get 0.5 percent to 1.4 percent of travelers out of their cars. With that much money going to little-used trolley and commuter trains, there won’t be enough money to spend on things that really can relieve congestion.

One real solution to congestion is high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

Like carpool lanes, HOT lanes would be free to buses and people in high-occupancy autos, but low-occupancy vehicles could also use them by paying a toll. Tolls that varied by the amount of congestion could pay for most or all of the construction cost and encourage some people to drive less-congested times of the day, thus reducing the need for more roads.

A complete HOT-lane network would allow anyone to get anywhere during rush hour in no more time than it would take to get there at midnight. Cars pollute most in congested traffic, so by reducing congestion HOT lanes would also reduce pollution.

RTD’s plan requires $851 million in federal funds. A share of those funds could be used as seed money to start the HOT-lane network.

RTD could spend the remaining federal funds running bus-rapid transit, meaning buses on rail schedules (or faster), on the HOT lanes. A recent report from the General Accounting Office found that bus-rapid transit was faster and cost less to operate and far less to start than light rail.

DRCOG only considered two alternatives: building FasTracks or not building it. If the agency analyzed HOT lanes and bus-rapid transit, rail transit wouldn’t have a chance.

Real solutions to the region’s transportation problems demand something other than a multibillion-dollar rail transit system that will attract only 0.5 percent to 1.4 percent of auto users out of their cars.

HOT lanes and bus-rapid transit will do far more to relieve congestion. Best of all, they require no new taxes.

If you want to pay more taxes while doubling congestion and the time you waste sitting in traffic, then support RTD’s plan. But if you want less congestion and cleaner air with no new taxes, then demand that your local and regional officials get off RTD’s trains and onto HOT lanes with bus-rapid transit.