March 01--LOUISVILLE -- High-ranking officials from the Regional Transportation District got an earful from residents and elected leaders in Louisville Wednesday on the future of commuter rail in the northwest corridor.
Councilman Jay Keany said an option being considered by RTD to nix a train line between Denver and Longmont in favor of bus service makes Louisville and surrounding communities feel like the "ugly stepchild" in a metro area that has been promised rail transit for the past eight years.
"We're not getting what we were told we were going to get," Keany told RTD General Manager Phil Washington and other agency officials who came to city hall for a public hearing on the issue.
Resident Steve Poppitz said those living in the northwest corridor have been paying sales taxes for nearly a decade to support FasTracks, an effort to build six rail lines in and around Denver, including a 41-mile line from downtown Denver to Longmont via Louisville.
"We want our train. We paid our taxes like Highlands Ranch did, like Denver did," Poppitz said Wednesday. "We don't want a couple of extra buses. Are they going to refund our money — are they going to give us back our 0.4 percent?"
Voters in 2004 approved a 0.4 percent sales tax to pay for FasTracks, but RTD has run into repeated funding issues with the massive project related to spiraling construction costs and lower-than-expected sales tax revenues.
Washington said the northwest corridor is a special case because it is the only rail line in the system that wouldn't be owned by RTD. Commuter trains would have to share space with freight trains operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe — on tracks owned by the railroad company.
By RTD's estimates, the cost of sharing the track with BNSF has blown up — from $894 million to $1.7 billion — and forced the agency to devise a list of options for tackling the northwest corridor transit problem.
The first two options would retain the train but push back its debut to 2024. The third option ditches the train and proposes bus rapid transit for U.S. 36 and the Diagonal Highway instead.
One of the options, which will be voted on by RTD's board of directors next week, would likely end up on a ballot measure this fall asking voters for a doubling of the sales tax for FasTracks.
Washington tried to assure council members that no decision has been made on how to proceed and that RTD staffers are still collecting feedback from the public on the future of Northwest Rail.
"No one wants to build this thing more than we do — we're married to this thing," he said. "But you balance that with financial realities and you balance that with the other player you have out here, and that's called the railroad."
Mayor Bob Muckle said he sympathized with RTD's financial struggles but he said a bus rapid transit, even with fixed stations and rail-like amenities, wouldn't work in Louisville.
He said Highway 42 has no capacity for additional dedicated bus lanes and much of the city's planning for its downtown has been predicated on a train depot being built aside the tracks that run through town.
Councilwoman Emily Jasiak said train travel through Louisville encompasses more than just putting "butts in seats." It also dictates land-use decisions and gives the city a sense of place, she said.
"It's a lot more than getting from A to B for us," Jasiak said. "It's all about rail."
A glimmer of hope for the future of Northwest Rail arose during the evening when several people mentioned that, in the just the last day or so, BNSF had expressed a willingness to consider a plan that would phase in commuter rail, segment by segment, on its tracks. Washington said he was familiar with the discussion but didn't elaborate on it.
"We'll look at all those things and my guess is our staff recommendation (to the RTD board) will take those things into account," he said.
Copyright 2012 - Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.