The Regional Transportation District is building light rail lines under its $4.7 billion FasTracks program.

DALLAS - Metro Denver's Regional Transportation District is considering whether to continue plans to build a costly rail line to the northwest suburbs or to economize with a bus rapid transit system.

BRT operations in two corridors could be built for about $114 million and could draw up to 14,000 riders a day by 2035, according to Chris Quinn, RTD's planning manager for the mobility study. Estimates for a rail line were as high as $1.4 billion in 2011.

BRT is a system that uses buses on dedicated routes, often separated from traffic, with few scheduled stops.

RTD is struggling to improve mass transit to the populous northwest suburbs of Westminster, Broomfield and Longmont under the FasTracks program approved by regional voters in 2004.

FasTracks, a system of light rail, commuter and bus rapid transit routes, was expected to cost $4.7 billion and to be completed in 2017 with financing from a 0.4 cent sales tax approved by voters.

By 2010 the budget soared to $6.5 billion while projected revenues dropped to $4.1 billion. Instead of seeking another tax increase, RTD pushed the completion date for the full expansion back to 2042.

Some parts of FasTracks have been completed, including the remodeling of the Union Station terminal in lower downtown. A commuter rail line from Union Station to Denver International Airport is expected to be completed in 2015.

A BRT system would not be funded by the FasTracks sales tax revenue because it was not part of the original plan approved by voters. However, Quinn told the RTD that there would be very little FasTracks money available until 2035.

RTD is applying for a $1.5 million federal grant, using the U.S. Department of Transportation's Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) to get environmental planning for two BRT corridors underway.

A report from the Northwest Area Mobility Study Planning & Development Committee presented to RTD's board this month recommended that RTD focus on finishing BRT upgrades while continuing to consider its rail options. The board is expected to take action on the recommendations in June.

In March, Fitch Ratings downgraded $655 million of RTD's certificates of participation to A from A-plus and retained a negative outlook. The COPs are financing RTD's FasTracks work on the Eagle P3 commuter rail project that includes a 22.8-mile link between Union Station and Denver International Airport.

"The downgrade of the COPs and negative outlook reflects their exposure to projected thinning financial margins amidst RTD's aggressive expansion plan," Fitch analyst Jose Acosta wrote in his March 3 report. "As an operating expense of the system, COPs base rental payments, which have increased notably with recent and planned offerings, are paid after all other system debt service."

Standard & Poor's rates the COPs A-minus with a developing outlook based on the agency's new ratings criteria. Moody's Investors Service rates the COPs Aa3 with a stable outlook.

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