Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told RTD’s elected leaders Tuesday night that he wants to work with the transit agency to get the long-promised Northwest Rail line from Denver to Longmont built, adding that the projected completion date — 20-plus years out — is not “a legitimate date for discussion.”
“People understand a few years delay but nobody can understand 2042,” Polis said during a virtual Regional Transportation District study session. RTD has given various estimates of which year the 41-mile line that would also serve Broomfield, Louisville and Boulder will be finished.
The governor’s rare appearance at the RTD meeting comes after he questioned the agency over how strongly it’s committed to long-sought passenger rail to Boulder County.
“This is about fulfilling the existing promises made to taxpayers in 2004,” Polis said of the 0.4% sales tax metro area voters passed more than 16 years ago to fund FasTracks. “It creates a gap in public trust that doesn’t just affect transit.”
RTD Director Lynn Guissinger, whose district covers Boulder, opened the meeting by saying “voters are very frustrated.” She said RTD needs to do a better job nailing down the most accurate and up-to-date costs to build the Northwest Rail line and figuring out its ridership numbers.
RTD has projected that the line will have 4,100 riders a day at full service when finished.
The proposed full commuter rail line that would extend northwest out of Denver’s Union Station is by far the longest of the routes promised under the FasTracks project. And it has long been a point of dispute between the agency and hundreds of thousands of residents living largely in Boulder County.
Originally slated to open in full in 2015, RTD has managed to build just six miles of the line — known colloquially as the B-Line — to Westminster. RTD blames a stricter regulatory environment for passenger rail and increased construction costs for the delay, along with the complexity of the northwest corridor because it would have to share existing tracks owned and operated by freight rail company BNSF.
That has pushed the projected cost of building the B-Line to Longmont to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion, and without an additional sales tax to generate new cash, RTD says full service in the corridor won’t be a reality for another 25 years.
RTD General Manager Debra Johnson has suggested several times recently that completing the B-Line shouldn’t be the agency’s highest priority.
“While we’re fixated on rail because it’s sexy and everyone wants to ride the iron horse, we have to keep in mind what might be more viable,” she said at a Boulder Transportation Connections event last month, according to Colorado Public Radio.
It prompted Polis, who lives in Boulder and represented the congressional district that includes Boulder County for a decade, to pen a letter to RTD on Jan. 22 saying he was “extremely concerned” about what he perceived as a lack of commitment to a northwest rail line from RTD’s new leader.
“I write to remind you of RTD’s responsibility of fulfilling their obligations to the taxpayers of the district and urgently request you begin the planning necessary to complete the construction of the corridor by 2025,” Polis wrote.
The governor’s letter was followed by one last week from U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, who occupies Polis’ old seat.
“Taxpayers in (RTD) have been paying this increased tax for over 15 years, with the understanding that each of the FasTracks lines described in the 2004 FasTracks plan would be completed using those tax dollars,” Neguse wrote. “… it is important that this project still be completed.”
From 2005 to 2019, the most recent year for which RTD provided data, Boulder County residents contributed nearly $250 million to FasTracks via the sales tax. An 18-mile-long bus rapid transit service between Denver and Boulder on U.S. 36 was part of the original FasTracks plan, but Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley said expedited bus service doesn’t help his city.
“In 2004, there was a ballot measure that passed and the only reason we have a tax is to build the train,” he said.
At the very least, he said, RTD should work on providing a limited peak-only service along the corridor to save money. Bottom line, Bagley said: RTD either needs to step up or end the FasTracks tax in Boulder County.
“If the deal’s over, stop collecting the money,” Bagley said. “Because the train was what we were promised.”
Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann said the notion of separating Boulder County from the FasTracks tax is picking up steam, though she’s not sure how such a divorce could happen.
“People are frustrated given that they’ve been paying the tax this long,” she said. “And they’ve seen ribbon-cuttings for other train line openings and ours still hasn’t come.”
RTD has launched rail lines at a furious pace over the last five years, including the University of Colorado A-Line to the airport, the R-Line in Aurora, the G-Line to Arvada and Wheat Ridge and the N-Line to Thornton. Of the 119 miles of rail called for in FasTracks, RTD has completed 78 miles and spent $5.6 billion. It anticipates having to spend up to another $2.3 billion to complete four additional corridors, including Northwest Rail.
Stolzmann said the B-Line delay has had real impacts on her city that’s east of Boulder. Developers have been building denser, transit-oriented projects near where the downtown commuter rail station would be. She said some of those spaces, especially ones planned for retail, are now sitting empty.
The mayor said she sees some hope on the horizon, though it will take partnering with other entities rather than relying on RTD alone. The most likely scenario would incorporate the B-Line into a larger Front Range rail line connecting Fort Collins to Pueblo, a multibillion-dollar proposal that is being studied by state transportation officials right now but is also at least a decade away.
RTD Board Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede said ahead of Tuesday night that she too is excited about the possibility of linking up with any number of partners to get the B-Line built out, whether it’s the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, the Colorado Department of Transportation, Amtrak or BNSF.
“We’ve heard that RTD is the agency of no — we want to be the agency of partnership,” she said.
Johnson told the board at the end of Tuesday’s meeting that she planned to work up recommendations in the next 60 days for consideration to address doing a more detailed design study of the corridor, among other issues.
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