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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chugga Chugga Choo Choo!

RTD has approved diesel trains for the Boulder to Longmont leg of the commuter rail that will be implemented withFasTracks over the next 7, 8, however many years. Once again the Camera provides a quote that makes an official look foolish: "If the objective of FasTracks is to minimize the impact to the community, using diesel does not meet that objective," said Judy Montero, a Denver city councilwoman.

What a twisting of rationale that statement is. Has there ever been a statement that FasTrack's objective is to minimize impacts to the community - in any way other than offering non-vehicular options for travel? FasTrack's rationale has nothing to do with reducing noise or other aspects of additional modalities. There's no way Fastracks could ever be presumed to be less impactful on a community compared to the status quo trending of traditional car-dominant transportation. What kind of straw man foolishness is that?

Camera version.

Anyway, I voted for FasTracks with no illusions as to the standard cost overruns, way-too-optimistic timetables and the rest that would be part of any massive government project. In the grand scheme I still feel the capacities for people moving the effort will provide will be worth it, even if we weren't told it will really be $15 instead of $4 billion. No surprise there.

Notwithstanding the train whistles and other "community impacts", what do you think of FasTracks? Does it matter in Superior, Erie and Lafayette, especially?

14 comments:

KERRY BENSMAN said...

Recently I was appointed as Lafayette's liasion to FasTracks. I've attended one meeting and have a binder to plow through. Lafayette has assigned a planner as well.

The gist of the meeting was that RTD was taking a lot of heat over their post approval budget short fall. I take it from Dan's comment it is OK to promise one thing to the voters and afterwards say, "Never mind, we misled you. Because of that, it's OK you are stuck with this." And yes, because of the media campaign, many voters actually believed what they were being told.

The cost issue became a major driver in the approval of DMUs (Diesel Motorized Units).

Following some of the public comments and feedback, many folks argue the current BUS service is better, more commuter friendly, saves time and more flexible for future needs. In fact, there was concern that as RTD moved forward, it would cancel the bus service.

As for the impact on Louisville, Erie, and Lafayette, there will be a train station in Louisville, in the debated urban renewal area. So then the issue being worked is what is the impact of a commuter station? Will we have commuter neighborhoods just like Boston and New York? What will be the traffic impact of folks driving east through Lafayette to get to the station? Noise, pollution, gridlock, etc. And of course Louisville is hoping to capture sales tax dollars from those folks, a "leakage" strategy.

Now the Boulder politicians have something to deal with since the public survey there as anti-DMU.

KERRY BENSMAN said...

Sorry, drive west and east to get to the station on Baseline and So. Boulder Rd.

Cyclorado said...

I think the point is, ideally, more people will take the train, which should cause less polution over-all, than say, 100+ cars of single drivers setting in traffic on I-25 anbd 36. I don't think a bus will ever be faster than this, because they get stuck in traffic also, even with HOV lanes.

As for local traffic to get to the station, this should be minimal, considering the same vehicles would be driving somewhere else if there were no train. Short quick drive to the station. Not sure how far some would drive for the train, but I imagine there would be a sharp drop off after 5+ miles. Should be the same crowd driving to local park-and-rides.

The station in Louisville is situated in a not-so-convenient place to get to. But would not be difficult for anyone to get to from Hwy 42, if a little more infrastructure was put in place on Pine. This would make easy access from 36, Lafayette, S. Boulder.

The original plans were to have either electric OR diesel, so I don't think there was any wool pulled over anyone's eyes. Over a year ago at a public meeting it was stated that they would probably go with diesel because of cost. To put electric trains on the tracks they would need to refit the entire line with eletric gizmos. Nothing needs to happen to get diesel on there. Since Colorado uses coal as a main electric source, electric isn't that clean, either.

Cyclorado said...

Now that I re-read it, this is only for the Boulder-Longmont section (ADD causes me to skip import bold highlighted words). Didn't realize they could have used a different train than the rest of the line... intersetsing.

KERRY BENSMAN said...

You will see DMU on the table for the Boulder to Denver line as well.

Perhaps they were just testing the waters.

All of what you say was part of the discussion. There are pros to the cons and cons to the pros. One has to wonder though the reaction if FasTracks had shown a diesel on their literature.

Also shifting traffic patterns towards Louisville is going to be a major concern, especially since E. Baseline is gridlocked already during the rush hours. So it will be interesting to follow all of this.

Alex Schatz said...

Diesel, as ooposed to electrified “light-rail,” was on the original FasTrack plan, but many people did not understand that this is commonly referred to in transit as “commuter rail.” The BNSF line to Boulder was always shown as commuter rail.

One of the most salient points about FasTracks that rarely gets mention is that the whole plan was prioritized by corridor. Boulder/Longmont was an add-on to the last corridor to be addressed. I can't say I know the criteria by which those implementation priorities were established, but I've always suspected that high existing ridership, good existing infrastructure, and low projected ability to attract new riders was the reasoning behind the low priority for the 36 corridor.

I support FasTracks heartily, but it is truly a regional issue. If benefits and impacts to Boulder County are looked at in isolation, the net benefit becomes more ambiguous. For one, RTD has mentioned that the plan would be to reconceive bus routes in the area to serve as feeders to the rail service. This is possibly efficient from the standpoint of moving people, but it does have the potential to severely affect current riders. For example, bus routes that served remote areas in the southeast metro area were eliminated to feed the southeast light rail, which turned into such lengthy commutes for existing riders that RTD ended up in a political morass and had to restore some old service, which is cost inefficient and in my humble opinion intended to save political face while FasTracks EIS work is still on-going. Who knows if the regional L route and other currently excellent bus service from the East County would be saved by a similar outcry in the future.

Providing transit in a sprawling metropolitan area like Denver is no easy task, and I do believe that FasTracks is worthy for all its potential to improve transit and serve more people. I just don't expect, as a current transit rider, to derive much personal benefit getting to and from or within Boulder County.

The story of how City of Denver politicians managed to elevate the question of appropriate rail technology to a fever pitch is not particularly noble. Or, at least, it wasn’t primarily motivated by the environmental concern that seems to be the issue now. This all started of years ago with the DIA line, which was supposed to be a commuter rail (diesel powered) line in the original concept, and would have cut through some North Denver neighborhoods without providing frequent and conveniently located local service. Light rail is the appropriate technology on this corridor if serving those neighborhoods better is the one and only issue. So a huge price increase was attached to that corridor and several political careers were made in the process.

Finally, I continue to view the choice at hand as being self-propelled power versus electrification of the entire corridor. There are technologies that could replace diesel for “clean” locomotive technology, but they won’t be available for years into the future. Then again, neither will FasTracks, especially if public second-guessing of numerous assumptions in the original plan bogs the implementation down with grand ideas that lack any sort of cost-consciousness at all.

Doktorbombay said...

Cost consciousness is mutually exclusive from anything with the moniker RTD attached. This special taxing district was created with the promise of replacing buses nearly 40 years ago. The municipal bus system was going broke (imagine that). RTD promised a rail system, or similar mass transit, to replace the buses. They quickly ditched that concept and continued to run buses, meanwhile building a nice, big bureaucracy accountable to few. Now, whenever a plan comes along to provide the replacement for these buses, RTD sticks their hand out for more money.

There is no doubt bus routes will be redone to make them feeder routes for the rail system. Instead of taking the “L” to downtown Denver, you’ll probably take a local route to the rail station in Louisville, and the “L” will be eliminated. This will “prove” the economic feasibility of the rails. However, the “L” is one of the most profitable routes in the RTD system. Those buses are nearly always full during rush hour. Replacing full buses with expensive rail is not progress. Not for the short term, at least.

Is there something attractive about trains that would cause more people to ride the train than currently ride the bus? They won't take you to more places. They won't run any more often. Yes, they don't get caught up in highway traffic, but how much time does that really save? We'll see.

Getting Coloradoans out of their cars and onto mass transit is challenging, if not impossible, for the short term. Our entire society is built on the premise of mobility. Jobs are not close to home. Shopping isn’t close to either. Families live far apart. We need our cars. In many cases, we need multiple cars.

I’m in favor of mass transit. I just wish there was more accountability at RTD. Several have tried to change this by getting elected to the RTD board, only to succumb to the pervasive bureaucracy.

My desire for mass transit outweighs my distrust of RTD. But, to build out a truly effective mass transit system will take many more billions than even FasTracks. It will also take a major societal shift away from the automobile as our primary source of transportation. I don’t see this happening any time soon.

Dan Powers said...

Kerry you can appreciate this - I'm from Danvers, MA, and following the Big Dig in Boston has been a perverse sort of entertainment. When FasTracks came along I doubled the amount they said it would cost and looked at the best-case scenario of buildout with and without the regional transit components. I hoped the corruption would be less than in Boston's project, but no way did I believe the financial projections.

So, yes, I indulged in the lies and supported it anyway. I'm too cynical to believe anything above the County level will ever be truthful from the government, on any topic. That's why I stick to righteous indignation on our topics, because I can meet the officials and debate them on their numbers and premises. Once we get too large scale, there's no accountability. I doubt any politicians' seats are in jeapoardy because of FasTracks' overuns.

KERRY BENSMAN said...

Dan,

The Red Sox are down 3-1 so it is hard to talk about MA today. Plus tonight is the candidates forum at city hall while the big game is on tonight. The good news is for the first time I am interested in the National League with the Rockies since my beloved Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta decades ago.

I recognize that "those in the know" bear a hearty skepticism of the accuracy of government sponsored and voter approved projects funded projects. Unlike private enterprise, when the estimates are blown, government has no qualms about asking the taxpayers for more and more. Plus it is hard to assign accountability as it often appears to be more of a group grope with elected folks and bureaucrats arm in arm on this stuff.

I was happy to move from MA because the taxes were impossible, overruns were common, the ceiling of the Big Dig collapse and killed a wonderful family (after I left), and the Celtics kept raising ticket prices as their team became the laughing stock of the NBA. Never mind the weather and the bugs.

I'd like to think CO would be different. But I guess if government has the right mantra, folks can be convinced to open their pocket books wide, regardless of what state you are in and regardless of how much the overruns are. Watching the pork flow on the NW Parkway (private though run by elected politicians) was certainly an eye opener for me.

I don't know if I will ever get used to buying magic potions with all these wonderful promises knowing that the snake oil folks will be back asking for more again and again.

Alex Schatz said...

Putting all else aside, what strikes me about the sentiment here is that RTD is being blamed for every last bit of the cost overruns.

While I think a fair amount of criticism can justly be directed at RTD and the way that FasTracks was over-optimistically packaged for the vote, there are at least two additional major factors at work. First is commodity prices, which have been on a steep upward climb. Second is the public process. Comparison to the private sector doesn't approach fair unless you acknowledge that the public process and politics are a big part what makes many government projects so difficult and costly. The private sector does not, for the most part, have to deal with this.

Whether you have a good opinion of RTD or believe it to be a conspiratorial, unaccountable agency of the lowest caste, I'm willing to bet that even RTD folks wish the price tag wasn't being affected by individuals who cannot accept that trains have benefits even if they are powered by diesel locomotives.

Doktorbombay said...

RTD is wholly to blame, unless you believe their spin that it's because of increased costs.

Their cost projections were purposefully low to obtain votes. Their financial projections were done in a vacuum, with a predetermined outcome (what will the voters accept as a cost). Don't worry we'll blame skyrocketing costs for the overrums. And, people buy this crap.

These are multi-year projects. Any first year financial analyst would project huge cost increases, for no other reason than this is a tax funded project and suppliers will raise their prices automatically.

And, within RTD, they don't really care about delays. That just means more job security as this thing drags out. And, as time goes on, it's even easier to blame cost overruns on higher costs rather than bad planning.

If you think private enterprises are immune to politics, you are mistaken. I've witnessed many capital projects mushroom in cost and blow financial analysis/planning efforts because of politics within. Whether private or public, what gets capital projects done on time and within budget is strong, focused management.

Again, I'm in favor of mass transit. FasTracks will be a step in the right direction. But, there will be more elections asking for more money to continue to build out the system. As these occur, I'm hopefull that voters will insist on more accountability within RTD.

If you disagree with this assessment of RTD's motives, than the only other cause for this is absolute ineptness. Should we accept ineptness with our tax dollars?

Cyclorado said...

I'm not sure RTD does deserve a lot of blame. This is a pretty big project and you expect them to have hard numbers before the election? They hadn't even done an EIS, which could have scrapped some of the project or required extra costs to remediate or bypass problems.

The line to Longmont is an add-on. The same thing is going on in Golden/Lakewood. They scrapped a section of the line due to cost and after local outcry, they are adding it back on, but at a significant price increase. Is RTD really to blame?

I can understand all of the skepticism, but transportation projects are pricey and a lot of factors make it that way. Materials, contractors, architects, etc. A lot of hands are in the pot, and if gas prices go up, and they have, everyone increases their price, if they need to or not.

Doktorbombay said...

There are always unknowns in huge projects, I'll give you that. But, this isn't their first project. They knew the EIS could run up cost. They knew many things could run up costs. Should've been factored into the total asked for from the voters.

Instead, they market a romantic rail system at a relatively low, unrealistic cost just to get it approved.

And, now with housing taking a dumper, construction costs should come down. I'll wager they won't come down for RTD. Best timing for a government boondoggle is during a recession. It keeps costs down and people employed. Maybe they're just waiting for the recession.

Any wagers on how many times they come back to us for money to complete this thing?

Yes, transportation projects are pricey. Primarily because they're government projects. Did you notice how fast C-470 was completed from 120th Ave. west to I-25? They worked at night, 24/7 to complete that project. Why? Because it was a privately funded project. Different mindset.

KERRY BENSMAN said...

So is all this close enough for government work?

Someone coined that phrase for good reason?