CO: Boulder Sees Influence on FasTracks Tax Proposal

FasTracks options

The Regional Transportation District Board of Directors soon will decide whether to ask voters this fall to double a 0.4-percent sales tax to help complete the FasTracks transit expansion program -- including the Northwest Rail Line to Boulder and Longmont. Here's a look at some of the options for using the money that cities are being asked to consider.

1. RTD could build out the Northwest Rail Line at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion, with a target completion date of 2024.

2. Plans for the Northwest Rail Line could be abandoned entirely and RTD would shift more than $890 million toward providing improved bus service between Denver and the Boulder/Longmont area.

3. The Northwest Rail Line could be delayed while money is invested in temporary improvements to bus service between Denver and the Boulder/Longmont area.

4. Without a new tax, RTD would continue to build out the entire FasTracks program, but it wouldn't be completed until 2042.

Boulder County may hold the key to the success or failure of a possible ballot measure this fall that would raise money for the beleaguered FasTracks rail transit program, Boulder officials say. And they're ready to make sure the city gets its due in exchange for helping the measure along.

Recently revised cost estimates for the Boulder County portion of the metro-wide rail plan now comes in at $1.7 billion, up from the previous estimate of $894.4 million. In an effort to get the project back on track, the Regional Transportation District is mulling whether to ask voters this fall to approve doubling the current 0.4-percent sales tax for the project.

Members of the Boulder City Council see that as an opportunity to get certain assurances that the U.S. 36 corridor and the Northwest Rail Line to Boulder and Longmont would get a fair share of the funds.

"In the end, I think everyone realizes... that for a ballot issue to be successful, it needs to pass handily in Boulder County," Mayor Matt Appelbaum said during a recent council meeting. "That is our leverage, to a very large extent."

He said that the city should work to make sure that a tax measure, or any alternative plan for investing heavily in the U.S. 36 corridor, is fair to Boulder and the surrounding communities. "If whatever comes out of this is something that Boulder County -- and perhaps more broadly, the U.S. 36 corridor -- cannot support, and where the elected officials in those areas are opposed to it, this thing has no chance of passing," Appelbaum said of a tax measure. "And I think everybody knows that."

Voters in Boulder County were critical to approving the original FasTracks sales tax in 2004. The county approved the measure with 64.4 percent of the vote, which was the second-widest margin of support after Denver. 'What does this mean for the corridor?'

Voters were told in 2004 to expect 119 miles of new rail that would be built through nine corridors in the Denver-metro area by 2017, including the Northwest Rail Corridor, which would connect Denver's Union Station to Longmont via Westminster, Broomfield, Louisville and Boulder. But an increase in construction costs and a decrease in sales tax revenues have left RTD billions of dollars short of what it needs to complete the system and bring commuter rail to Boulder County anytime soon.

"That has raised the question of, 'What does that mean for the corridor?'" Appelbaum said. Even RTD is not entirely sure. Pauletta Tonilas, a spokeswoman for the FasTracks project, said the RTD Board of Directors is scheduled to vote next month on whether to approve the FasTracks financial plan, which assumes the successful passage of a ballot measure.

If that happens, it would be a "pretty solid direction" that the board would push for a ballot measure this year, she said, although the final decision wouldn't come until later this spring. Ahead of that meeting, RTD has asked stakeholder cities to provide input on a range of alternative options.

One option is to continue focusing on the Northwest Rail Line, which would be completed by 2024 at current cost estimates. A second option would abandon the rail plan and shift more than $890 million in resources toward providing improved bus service between Denver and the Boulder/Longmont areas. A third option would provide temporary improved bus services and further delay development of the rail line.

If a tax is not put on the ballot, or if it is but fails, RTD would push ahead with the entire FasTracks system -- but it would not be completed until 2042. "That's why we are looking at these other options and what makes sense," Tonilas said.

A tough sell Appelbaum, the Boulder mayor, said he's skeptical about the alternatives. "So far, our approach has been that we need to make sure that the corridor gets its fair share of the FasTracks dollars, which, of course, we have not gotten," he said. "If alternatives are proposed, the reality is we are not going to know all the costs... before this goes on the ballot." Carl Castillo, Boulder's policy adviser, said he thinks that any alternative likely would be a tough sell to cities that have been made promises of rail service.

"It's going to be very tough for cities that have expected a train, and to have it sooner than later, to consider anything shorter than that," Castillo said. "I think we all agree that the train is a very important complement to the (bus-rapid-transit) system." Councilman George Karakehian said that, if alternatives must be considered, Boulder needs to get assurances that the city will benefit from them before getting behind a ballot measure.

"I think that we have to be in this and we have to be named (so) that, in fact if this passes... we get our share," he said. "Boulder jumped behind this almost more than anyone. I would hate to see it happen again, and then decide to spend the money on I-70." 'We're just hosed' Tonilas, the FasTracks spokeswoman, said that having Boulder's support for a ballot measure is important, but the city is not the only voice to consider.

"Everybody's important in order to pass this," she said. "It's really something we have to look at as... a combined region." Councilwoman KC Becker said that's a big problem for RTD, which she said is in the position of having to "promise so much to so many people."

"I look at this and I think, 'Oh my gosh, we're just hosed,'" she said. Boulder is hardly the only city fretting over the future of FasTracks. Earlier this month, the Longmont City Council blasted RTD for the ballooning costs and lack of progress. Longmont Councilwoman Katie Witt said she also thinks Boulder County will be critical to passing a tax measure.

"Something we're going to need to be talking about is how to force accountability from RTD," she said. "There is nothing we can do to make them fulfill their promises. So yes, they're going to need to have all their stakeholders on board. "So far, I don't know if they have them." Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or urieh@dailycamera.com

Leana Krueger, of Westminster, gets off the bus from Boulder on Thursday at the Broomfield park-n-Ride station along U.S. 36. Boulder officials are hoping to get assurances the U.S. 36 corridor and the Northwest Rail Line to Boulder and Longmont would get a fair share of future FasTracks money should RTD seek a sales-tax increase this fall.

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