By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Regional Transportation District officials this evening will vote on whether to send to voters a ballot initiative that would raise RTD sales tax an additional four-tenths of a percent to complete the voter-approved FasTracks project by 2017.
The crippled light rail expansion project — which is facing a shortfall of at least $2.4 billion — was promised to voters in 2004 at a price tag of $4.7 billion. But RTD says soaring costs of materials coupled with the global recession won’t allow planners to complete the project by 2017 as promised, unless there is another tax increase.
“We have been very diligent about thinking through all the latest information surrounding FasTracks, including feedback from our regional stakeholders,” Lee Kemp, chair of the RTD Board, said in a statement. “The last part of the process is hearing directly from the public — our customers and taxpayers.”
A public hearing will be held at the board meeting tonight, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at RTD headquarters, 1600 Blake St.
Some anti-tax crusaders, however, would rather see the project completed with whatever resources are currently available rather than raise taxes again. Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian Independence Institute, believes officials have been lying to the public since they went to voters with the proposal.
“It’s hard to build support from taxpayers when you continually lie to them,” said Caldara. “There was no way from the beginning that this could have been done on time and on budget.”
Caldara sat on the RTD Board from 1994-1998, during which time he opposed the FasTracks proposal. He does not believe voters will go for another tax increase.
“RTD is massively stupid, but they’re not so massively stupid as to put this on the ballot for this year,” quipped Caldara. “It would be blown apart into little, itsy-bitsy pieces.”
A vote of the people has been postponed since the additional tax has been discussed. Polling indicates that voters are not in favor of a tax increase. Last year the issue was the odd election year; this year there is concern about the economic downturn.
If a sales tax vote is approved by voters this year, RTD would be able to complete the project by 2017, according to RTD officials. If voters approve the tax hike in 2012, the program would be complete by 2019. If voters do not approve a tax increase, the project would not be completed until 2042, according to FasTracks planners.
Lines at risk are the Interstate 225 Corridor in Aurora; the North Metro Corridor from Union Station to Thornton, Commerce City and Northglenn; and the Northwest Rail Corridor from Union Station to Longmont, passing through north Denver, Adams County, Westminster, Broomfield, Louisville and Boulder.
The Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) is hopeful that voters would approve the tax increase if presented to them on the ballot. The group argues that light rail expansion would save taxpayers money on gas and other travel expenses.
Danny Katz, director of CoPIRG, points out that the average Coloradan spends 17 percent of their income on transportation expenses.
“The most important thing right now is figuring out how can we build the system in its entirety, because it’s an important system — it connects the entire Denver Metro region and it has numerous, numerous benefits, from environmental to economic to jobs,” said Katz.
A spokesman for Mayor John Hickenlooper, who has been a huge proponent of FasTracks, said Monday that the mayor would support sending to voters a tax increase proposal to pay for the system.
“He is committed to completing FasTracks in its full breadth and scope,” said Eric Brown, Hickenlooper’s spokesman. “We recognize that may mean asking voters for more support. We are confident the RTD Board of Directors will determine the best way to move forward.”
Katz shrugs off accusations that RTD promised something to voters that was never possible. He points out that the T-REX project, including the Southeast light rail line, was completed in 2006 $3.7 million under budget and 22 months ahead of schedule.
“It surprises me that anyone can claim that RTD has any sort of track record of not delivering,” said Katz.
“We absolutely think it’s because of the economy,” he said of the shortfall. “When you have something that’s dependent on sales tax revenue and then you go into one of the worst recessions in the last 50 years, then it’s not surprising that we’re coming up short.”