Monday, June 1, 2009

FasTracks at any cost.

RTD is continuing to push for the eminent domain acquisition of the Owens Corning Plant on the Denver/Adams County border here: 
despite indications from the company that they may close the plant completely if forced to relocate. The company says it could cost upwards of $80 million and three years to rebuild the facility which makes roofing materials. The plant employs 100 people and others who supply the company locally. RTD wants to use the land of a maintenance facility for its commuter rail trains. They originally wanted to use the site of their current maintenance facility at 31st Street and Ringsby here, but neighbors, especially those at the new TAXI development complained and RTD acquiesced. So basically we have the ultimate war of the classes: yuppies in their new lofts or working class manufacturing workers. Not quite that simplistic I know, but these decisions RTD will have to make have real consequences.

For one, the Public Private Partnerships that RTD uses to fund and build FasTracks may be under peril if RTD cannot figure out some key issues about its build-out. According to the Denver Post, out-going RTD director Cal Marsella, said $1 billion in PPP financing could be delayed because of questions over the maintenance facility, a lawsuit by rail activists that could prevent Union Station from being built, and uncertainty over whether the federal government will provide funding to FasTracks for the DIA line.

The RTD board has already decided to wait until 2010 to ask taxpayers for an additional tax increase to build FasTracks on time. With Cal Marsella leaving at the end of the month, RTD is also faced with basically having no leader organizing this whole mess. Where does that leave FasTracks? Nobody knows for now, though apparently RTD and Owens Corning our trying to work out some kind of deal.  But again this shows that RTD has a problem with anticipating problems before they become huge messes. I mean shouldn't RTD have worked out these issues before they even asked taxpayers for money in the first place? RTD's inability to anticipate imperils FasTracks completely. I no longer have any confidence that the system will be completed on time or at all (except for perhaps the already under-construction West Line). RTD says that it still believes  it can build the system on time by 2017, but that promise is looking emptier by the day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Finally...a break from RTD

Now that Cal Marsella has left as RTD director, maybe there has been some sense of common rider decency restored at the transit organization. According to an article from the Denver Post, RTD officials are not planning on increasing the fares for 2010.

Apparently, RTD's previous proclamation that our transit fares are similar to other cities no longer holds water. According to RTD's own records, our express and regional transit are on average nearly a full dollar ($.96) higher than other cities. Anyone who has ever took a $10 SkyRide trip to the airport fully understands this. Supposedly, the local transit fares are on par with other cities though I wonder if it takes into consideration our awful zoned system which makes light rail potentially cost upwards of $4.50 just to travel through a few zones. Many if not most cities have one fare for all local transit, regardless of how far you travel.

Because of the higher fares, RTD has gained 12 percent more fare revenue for the first quarter of 2009. I doubt the revenue increase will continue much further into 2009 since the system-wide cuts that just went into effect will certainly effect the fare box.

So while it's good news that RTD probably won't raise fares in 2010, the bigger worry is what RTD is going to do in face of massive revenue declines from its take in sales tax. During this recession, sales tax revenues decreased 12 percent for the first quarter of the year. Since RTD gets the vast majority of its revenue from taxes, this is definitely a bad situation. The genius analysts at RTD said they are only expecting a seven percent tax revenue drop for the year, which I think is dubious since we are already at 12 percent for the first three months and its not like the economy is steadily improving. I expect deeper revenue declines and severe slashes in the service as a result.

With the economy in trouble its hard to expect RTD to do anything but remain in a holding pattern, but they should also really be considering its place within this city and how to get Denver a truly great transit system if they are going to have any long term viability. Sure FasTracks will help when (or if) that is completed, but a lot of the problem is at a systematic level with policies that do not fully consider the transit experience for its riders. RTD needs a much less complicated fare structure (get rid of zones already), an increase in neighborhood service, stops that actually provide accurate schedules, and a greater ability for regular people to simply take transit instead of driving. We are a long way to go before RTD is anything close to cities with real transit, but I have been encouraged by a few recent developments (acknowledging that RTD is overpriced, the upgraded web site, the fact that Cal Marsella is no longer in charge). But what else should RTD be doing NOW to make sure it has a healthy future.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cal Marsella resigning as RTD chief

The Associated Press reported that RTD Director Cal Marsella is resigning from his position to take a private sector job with MV Transportation Inc.

I am no fan of Marsella. He constantly loaded his position with huge and undeserved benefits. On his way out for example, Marsella will get crash credit for 2,000 hours of unused vacation and sick time. He also was the man in charge of the RTD incompetence we have seen since the beginning of FasTracks. During the last five years, RTD has gone hugely over-budget and probably will have to delay the ambition transit plan mostly due to their inability to figure out the actual costs of the project. The transit system has also seen massive service cutbacks, fare increases, disputes with its labor and a scandal-plagued leadership that uses tax dollars for luxurious business trips.

But in the 14 years he has been RTD director, Marsella has also guided RTD's implementation of thee separate light rail lines that were both under-budget and wildly successful. And he has done much to promote the use of transit for all in the district, even if he makes it harder for riders to actually afford and use the system.

I prefer to use Marsella's resignation as an opportunity to bring new voices and leaders to a system that is clearly in stagnation. In the coming weeks, riders need to be a voice in the process of choosing a new RTD director. We need to make sure whoever that person is will listen to our concerns instead of becoming another career bureaucrat like Marsella became. The Marsella era is over...what's in store for the next stop is for us to decide.

Friday, April 24, 2009

RTD's FasTracks problem

One of my main problems with RTD is their failure to properly forecast problems before they happen and their subsequent inability to adapt when what they though was supposed to happen ends up false.

Take this article in yesterday's Denver Post. RTD is trying to use eminent domain on a shingle plant in north Denver so they can build a sprawling maintenance facility there. The problem with this proposal in that according to workers at the shingle factory, they would take years not months to properly move the facility at a cost of $80 million. 

RTD disputes those claims, but doesn't actually have any analysis of what they think the move would cost, waiting until this fall when the Environmental Impact Study of the Gold Line is completed. But the plant represents another costly and time-consuming obstacle to the completion of FasTracks at a time when RTD can scarcely afford one. Not to mention the fairness of putting the jobs at the shingle factory at risk. 

And the reality is this has everything to do with RTD's inability to anticipate the realities of a large and complicated infrastructure project. RTD first wanted its maintenance facility to be acquired from Union Pacific land, but that proved too costly. Then the agency wanted in near the new River North developments next to Brighton Boulevard, but after the developers decried the plan, RTD is trying for the shingle plant, which may be just as intractable as the other sites. Of course the real reason it needs the maintenance facility in the first place is that RTD now will be using commercial rail cars instead of light rail for the vast majority of the newly-built lines. Many of the lines were originally supposed to be light rail, but had to change most of them to commercial rail once Union Pacific told them light rail cars would be too dangerous to operate next to the heavy freight lines. So now RTD has to scramble to build a huge maintenance facility for these new trains. Poor planning, don't you think?

It's an unfortunate reality now that the FasTracks voters passed in 2004 is turning into something more expensive and complicated now that it is being built. The shingle plant is just the latest obstacle of RTD's making that could further delay or increase costs in an already bloated plan. RTD wants voters to approve even more money to FasTracks in November. But with a bad economy and constant signs that RTD doesn't know what it is doing, will voters endorse that?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

RTD Unveils New Web Site

So in all of my complaining about RTD, I do have to give them props for their new Web site:

It's sleek. It's more intuitive and navigable. And the new trip planner is really nice with its ability to do a standard RTD trip finder or a Google maps feature that actually shows you the exact route on city streets the trip will take. And the trip planner gives you many more options to describe where you are and where you are going including addresses, intersections and a variety of landmarks. The schedules are also much improved. The old ones seemed to crunch all of the stops together and times did not always correspond to the stop. These new schedules fix that completely and also let you customize the tables so you can search by arrival and destination stops and the time in which your actually leaving instead of trying to search though a table for the ones that are relevant to you. 

So at least our taxpayer dollars were going to something worthwhile for a change. The old site was pretty bad with hard to find information and a trip finder that was definitely not intuitive. So good job RTD. Hopefully your rider-first approach with the Web site won't end there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More taxes for RTD?

On Wednesday, several Metro Area mayors tentatively approved a ballot measure that would ask taxpayers in November to double the sales tax to complete FasTracks on schedule. As many of you know, FasTracks has a $2.2 billion construction deficit that might forestall the completion of the transit system

Last Sunday, two columns appeared in the Denver Post one by RTD Director Lee Kemp and the other by Kevin Hoist. The columns were about whether and how RTD's FasTracks system should be implemented. Kevin Hoist argued in part that since RTD has already mismanaged the implementation of the system (not to mention its own services), maybe we need to consider taking FasTracks away from RTD management before we even consider a tax increase. Kemp just blathered on for nine paragraphs about the need for more transit, but did not even try to say why RTD should deserves to manage it or what RTD is going to do to make sure the system is not faced with even more inept planning.

As it stands now, RTD will only be able to build the West Line that is already under construction, the DIA line that has significant federal funding and probably most of the Gold Line to Arvada which is the next closest to being ready as it will travel mostly on rail that is already built. There may not be enough money for the other three lines and the expansions to the current lines. And there may also not be enough money to run the lines once they are finally built.

The reason we are in this situation is mostly because of RTD's ineptitude. When they asked voters to approve the plan, they undercut the price and didn't really study the lines enough to understand the difficulty of getting the land they wanted or that they couldn't build light rail next to major freight lines and so the cost went up. And then it went up again because of international spikes in commodity prices. And now sales taxes are down for the recession and because they didn't expect that, they now have less money coming in than they thought they would, meaning they can't take advantage of the lower materials cost.

And now RTD wants to ask for more taxes in a recession to make up for the cost. It's going to be a tough sell to taxpayers. No tax increases even for worthy causes or even industry taxes passed in the 2008 election despite significant gains by more left-leaning politics. This November there won't be a national election to increase voting, so those who vote will most likely be the ones most passionate about the specific issues involved, and I think there are a lot of people who do not like RTD or how FasTracks is going right now.

I am not really one of those Independence Institute types (I suspect Kevin Hoist may be), who think light rail and other transit is a waste of money. I do think that Denver should make investments in its transit infrastructure to really make us competitive with other cities and of course to help alleviate growth, traffic, pollution and many other ills. But RTD has not really proven itself worthy of the public's trust on this. They continue to cut service, and half-ass construction plans because they have no ability to figure out the trajectory of their ambitious plans. They already broke the promise they made to taxpayers

So maybe we should see a smaller FasTracks, or a longer construction time for FasTracks. Or maybe Kevin Hoist is right and we should put another agency in charge of building FasTracks (but who?) and then maybe give RTD control once the lines are finished.

But by November we are going to have to make some of these decisions as a community. What I want is some real options presented clearly. Let the taxpayers and riders decide what the next step is not government or quasi-government bureaucrats who in many ways have already failed us. Let us decide.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

No tolls on Peña

The Denver Post reported on its front page yesterday that RTD, local and state officials were considering adding tolls in Peña Boulevard o pay for the spiraling costs of the RTD FastTracks line to the airport. RTD General Manager Cal Marsella was already foaming at the mouth about the proposal, saying it could generated $500 million for FasTracks.

Of course, most Denverites think this is an awful plan. Nearly 70 percent on the Denver Post's Web poll were against the proposal and its easy to see why when Denver taxpayers already spent billions of our money to build that airport and billions more for the FastTracks plan. To toll on top of taxes just seems like screwing over local taxpayers. This is especially true since there are few good transportation options to DIA except driving there. The RTD SkyRide costs $8 to $12 per person per ride, which is way more than the cost of gasoline and even parking for a one to two day trip. Now, I understand that these tolls would help build a  supposedly better alternative to DIA, but I could see the toll being a slippery slope where after FasTracks is built, we suddenly now need the tolls for something else. I think it is just unfair to expect people to pay simply to visit the airport; to pick up family members or friends. Can you think of another city that charges tolls directly to go to its airport?

Well fortunately, the plan looks to be on hold indefinitely. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper floated the idea to toll Peña a few months ago, but now the logistics make no sense. The federal government spent a lot of money helping build DIA, and would likely expect a significant portion of any tolls on the road they helped build, meaning any actual money to RTD would be a lot less than expected. And of course pretty much all stake-holders except for greedy RTD are against the toll, including City Councilman Mike Hancock whose district included DIA.

So what about other funds for the FasTracks project that is seeing declining sales tax revenues but also declining construction costs? The transportation bill signed by Governor Ritter allows RTD to levy a sales tax at any rate it wants. We can be sure the RTD board will be quick to charge more taxes on all of us for their purposes. Unfortunately, none of this addresses the real reason why RTD and FasTracks is in such dire financial state: RTD mismanagement and inability to accurately forecast any kind of financial future. Its only when RTD can really address its own problems would I feel comfortable giving the agency any more of my tax dollars. Otherwise it seems it's just being thrown down the drain.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Some sad and unsurprising news: Rocky Mountain News closed

As you probably all know by now, the Rocky Mountain News has closed. It's definitely a sad day for Colorado, Denver, journalism and democracy at large. The Rocky always provided an important voice when it came to transit issues with reporter Kevin Flynn in particular providing in-depth articles about RTD and transit in the Denver Metro Area. The Rocky will be sincerely missed.

When it came to transit related articles, the Rocky Mountain News was always way ahead of the Denver Post. I just hope the Rocky's former competitor will not let its transit riding readership down.

And a side note: I always though Denver's newspapers did a crummy job of taking advantage of transit ridership. Yeah, you could see a few boxes here and there by some bus stations, but I always thought newspaper boxes should be placed right next to light rail and bus stations. Transit riders have time to kill to actually read the paper. Hopefully, the Post will take more advantage of that before Denver becomes a no newspaper town.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Quick update: Transit strike avoided

In an extremely smart move, the Colorado Division of Labor sent the contract negotiations between RTD and Amalgamated Transit Union 1001 to third-party arbitration, avoiding a potentially dangerous transit strike.  This is a small victory for the transit union, which hoped arbitration would provide a means to come up with a fair and binding union contract with RTD.  

RTD actually hoped the state would allow the union to strike. RTD stated that arbitration would remove the incentive for fair negotiations with the union for some reason. That meant RTD had to argue to the state that a transit strike wouldn't really be that big of a deal.

The dozens of disabled and blind riders told the state otherwise last Thursday and the Division of Labor agreed. The Division of Labor can prohibit strikes if it believes such a strike would cause harm to public peace, health or safety. An almost complete stoppage of transit in Denver would have a devastating effect on many, not only those who are transit dependent, but anyone who travels in Denver and would have to face significantly increased congestion and travel times because of the transit strike.

RTD wants a three-year wage freeze and control over the union's benefits. The union wants modest wage increases and enough of the benefits control. Hopefully, they can negotiate a package that actually provides the union with most of what they want and RTD the ability to pay for such benefits. At the very least, RTD riders can rest assured there will not be a transit strike in five days that to paralyze our city.

Monday, February 23, 2009

RTD's disgusting excess

Face the State produced this great report Friday on the RTD Board of Directors spending of more than $54,000 in taxpayer money to travel to exotic locations, eat at fine-dining restaurants and provide ground transportation to trips just to Denver International Airport.

I am not going to go into a huge amount of specifics here, because Face the State did such a good job of laying it all out at their Web site, which I urge you to read in full.

But RTD directors basically got free hotel rooms, food, transportation and other amenities while on supposed RTD business at various conferences whose value to actual writers is most likely dubious. Some of the more egregious charges are $1,627 for a "China Trip" by District C director Juanita Chacon, the $328 District K Director Noel Busck charged to stay at a beach-front hotel during a San Diego conference, and various charges by directors for transportation and parking for travel to DIA, despite the fact that directors are given full, free transit passes for all RTD services including the Skyride to DIA. 

Though each director's travel budget decreased from $10,000 in 2008 to $7,000 in 2009, the RTD Board just passed a resolution at last Tuesday's meeting increasing the directors' ability to be reimbursed for expenses related to having directors' spouses attend RTD sponsored "events" (parties) for lobbyists and legislators. 

RTD Board of Directors are elected officials. And while they are only given a $12,000 yearly salary, many of them also have jobs as lawyers (or some other upper middle-class job), or are sufficiently wealthy in semi-retirement. Basically, they don't really need to be reimbursed for anything, but us taxpayers are giving them loads of free trips and other goodies. This is happening at a time when RTD is supposedly in a budget crisis, a time when the board is voting to increase fares and cut service. 

If you think $54,000 is not much money in the grand scheme of a huge and unfortunately too-powerful bureaucratic semi-governmental agency, you are wrong. $54,000 is literally enough money to save whole portions of several bus lines the board just cut on Tuesday.  RTD's own calculations show it would save $27,300 for the cuts on route 3LTD, and $22,800 for the cuts on Route 6. Eliminate these ridiculous expenditures and save both of them. 

The RTD Board of Directors are basically stealing taxpayer money at the expense of providing quality service to the actual riders they purport of serve. Simply outrageous!