DALLAS - With revenues falling and costs rising, the Regional Transportation District of metropolitan Denver is developing a backup plan for its FasTracks transit program in the event voters refuse to raise more sales taxes to complete all the projects.
Currently the RTD is $2.3 billion short of the revenue it needs to complete FasTracks by the target date of 2017, according to a study released this week. The district expects to ask voters next year or in 2012 to approve higher taxes for the program.
Among the rail lines in development is a $1.3 billion commuter rail line from Denver International Airport to the city's Union Station in lower downtown.
At a Tuesday meeting, RTD board members discussed what one called a "regional equity compact" to shift funding to other FasTracks corridors if voters reject the tax hike.
Voters in the sprawling transit district approved a 0.4% sales tax increase to build what was expected to be a $4.7 billion system of rails and bus lines representing a massive expansion of the existing single-rail line from downtown to the southern suburbs. Since then, the estimated cost of completing the system by 2017 has risen to $7 billion. If another tax vote is held, it could come next year or in 2012, board members indicated.
In a consultant's report, the district was faulted for overly optimistic projections of 5% revenue growth over 25 years and failure to set up a contingency fund for circumstances such as the current recession and bond market decline.
The report to the RTD board, commissioned by the Denver Regional Council of Governments, found that the agency inadequately staffed the project and did not budget or negotiate properly with freight railroads over property the district needed.
DRCOG wants more realistic revenue forecasts and said that the district is running nearly two years behind on some projects and nearly five on others. Although the RTD's initial plan expected environmental studies to take about two years, they have actually taken three to five years, officials said.
Nonetheless, a January survey indicated continued support for the FasTracks plan, with 83% of metro-area residents still approving of FasTracks funding in 2004. The majority of respondents favored building the system within the original 12-year time frame, with 63% indicating that they would support a tax increase if necessary, to get it done by 2017.
If voters reject the additional taxes, the board would commit remaining funds and bonding authority to certain high-priority lines along U.S. 36 to the northwest and Interstate 225 to the east.
But the long-sought airport commuter line is still not a certainty. A public-private partnership to build the line has not yet formed as envisioned under the RTD's federal funding agreement. To qualify for the project, a private consortium would need $900 million of private financing in a tight credit market. The district expects to seek $1 billion in federal funds in 2011.
The RTD last month received 55 light-rail vehicles from Siemens Corp. for routes that are already in development. Some of the district's original light-rail cars put into service in 1994 recently reached the one-million-mile mark. The vehicles are expected to last 30 years, or two million miles.