Completing the RTD Northwest Rail Line will take partnership and money
While RTD has made substantial progress in delivering the projects included in the multibillion-dollar FasTracks program to expand transit across the Denver metro region, the Northwest Rail Line and other projects remain incomplete and unfunded. The reason is a confluence of factors – many outside of RTD’s control – that occurred since voters approved the initiative in 2004, RTD leadership told the Board of Directors during a study session Tuesday night.
Board Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede opened the meeting by noting a great deal of recent interest in Northwest Rail, the 35.3-mile extension of RTD’s B Line to Boulder and Longmont. She said that this first session, which will be one of many on this topic, was intended to provide new Board members and the public with a primer on FasTracks and the current state of Northwest Rail, “with the hopes of coming to a mutual understanding of how we have come to this point in the project.” The commuter rail line, which opened in 2016, now spans from Denver to Westminster.
Rivera-Malpiede noted that the Board has changed six times, and the agency has been overseen by several general managers, since FasTracks was passed 17 years ago. “We felt it was imperative to bring everybody together with a fresh look at what has happened, what was planned and what we need to do to move forward,” she said.
Rivera-Malpiede added that RTD looks forward to collaborating with regional partners including Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, both of whom have called on RTD recently to complete the Northwest Rail project, “as we move forward this very, very important commitment that has been made to the community.”
“I clearly understand that this project is significantly important to many in our community, as evidenced by the more than 90 comments received within the past few days, the media inquiries, as well as letters from the governor and other elected officials,” said RTD General Manager and CEO Debra A. Johnson. “I am here in the spirit of collaboration as we collectively identify solutions.”
Bill Van Meter, RTD’s assistant general manager of planning, provided a detailed presentation that included the history and timeline of FasTracks studies completed to date and the issues that have impeded the completion of Northwest Rail. He noted the challenges FasTracks faced in the initial years after its passage, including rising materials costs, sales tax declines brought about by the Great Recession and shifts in scope, such as new local and federal requirements and technology changes, that added significant costs to the program.
A desire for Northwest Rail to be completed remains strong among communities, businesses and leaders in the northwest part of RTD’s service district. A full corridor buildout with all-day service was estimated in 2018 at $1.5 billion in capital costs, plus $20.6 million in annual operation and maintenance costs, for a projected ridership of 4,100 people each day in the first year.
The most recent studies that have been conducted show sustained interest in the line being built and operated at a “peak” level of service, providing three one-way trains running between Longmont and Denver during both the morning and afternoon peak periods at a 30-minute frequency. Completing the project at this level of service would cost, in 2018 dollars, more than $708 million to build and $14 million each year to operate and maintain, with a projected ridership of 800 people each day in the opening year.
Northwest Rail remains the costliest of the unfinished FasTracks projects, the others being the .8-mile extension of the Central Rail Corridor, the final 5.5 miles of the N Line and the 2.5-mile extension of the Southwest Corridor.
The Board in April 2019 confirmed its commitment to completing the FasTracks program, despite there being severe constraints on the FasTracks budget without new funding sources. In so doing, the Board directed RTD staff to research all reasonable cost-saving measures for the construction and operation of all unfunded corridors, including creative funding mechanisms.
Staff prepared multiple FasTracks funding scenarios and concluded that, absent additional sales tax revenue, the earliest that Northwest Rail service could be provided was in the 2040s. Neither Northwest Rail nor any of the other remaining FasTracks projects would be competitive for federal grant funding, according to RTD staff analysis. Van Meter noted strong partnership opportunities on other projects being planned, including a Front Range Passenger Rail study and with Amtrak.
Northwest Rail presents unique constraints, Van Meter said, in that it is the only FasTracks corridor in which RTD cannot secure the right of way. BNSF Railway will continue to operate freight traffic there, so providing passenger service would require shared double track with BNSF operations.
Director Lynn Guissinger, who represents western Boulder County, asked about the level of confidence RTD has in the latest cost projections for Northwest Rail. Henry Stopplecamp, assistant general manager of capital programs, noted the various numbers the agency reviewed over time and said that “the big question is, has the scope stayed the same.”
Concerning the 2018-2019 cost estimates for peak period rail, he said, “you’re probably pretty close, but we still have to make sure that everybody’s on the same sheet of music as far as what everybody will see at the end of the day.” While there was ample involvement from the local communities, Stopplecamp added, RTD did not have numbers from BNSF at that time, so he called the numbers best guesses from plans put together in prior years.
“I’d like to readdress those and sit down with the BNSF,” Stopplecamp said of the numbers. “And I have talked with the BNSF, and they are willing to sit down with us.”
FasTracks would not have passed without Boulder County’s significant support, Guissinger said. Voters are frustrated. And northwest mayors and commissioners have asked that RTD consider peak period rail.
“This is the right moment to do this work,” she said. “Right now, we have potential partners. Amtrak is seeking funding at the federal level. This would be an opportunity for us to be part of a national-level rail system. Front Range Passenger Rail is moving forward with their planning processes. If we sit on the sidelines, we won’t have a voice in these decisions. If we offer them a partner who’s willing to put some skin in the game for Northwest Rail, we have an opportunity to really change and enhance these important conversations.”
To rebuild trust, she added, “we need to answer unanswered questions. We need cost and ridership numbers that aren’t questioned by our constituents. And there’s a cost in not doing something, because if we don’t do it now when we have potential partners, when will we do it?”
Director Erik Davidson, whose district includes several northwest communities, asked staff and the Board to keep in mind three fundamental points during discussions about Northwest Rail: that the B Line would run along many cities within RTD’s service district, “and we have a crisis of credibility with those Coloradans.” He called the completion of a design study for the peak service plan “the logical next step in the direction of progress.” He asked that the Board work to position RTD as a leader in any potential partnerships that could accelerate rail development in our region.
“I realize that talk, and planning, is cheap, but if talk turns to action, only the creative and the most focused will be the ones who benefit,” Davidson said. “We owe it to ourselves and to this region to be the most creative and the most focused leaders in preparation. No one’s expecting us to break ground on the B Line tomorrow. But they are asking us to take credible and material next steps and to honor our commitments and to engage with them. They’re asking us to lead.”
General Manager and CEO Johnson had invited Gov. Polis to add his thoughts to the discussion, and he joined the meeting briefly to do so. The Boulder resident congratulated the agency’s leaders on completing most FasTracks projects and referred to the remaining projects, including Northwest Rail, as the “glass-as-half-empty piece that brings us all here today.” Completing existing projects, and upholding the will of the voters, is essential before looking at others, he said.
Polis urged RTD to put pandemic-related funding received from the federal government toward Northwest Rail and other existing commitments. Federal legislation guiding the pandemic-related relief funding, however, is clear that capital construction is not an eligible use. The relief funding is being provided specifically to respond to revenue shortfalls related to COVID-19 and to ensure that existing transit operations are maintained during the health emergency.
“People understand a few years’ delay. Nobody can understand 2042,” Polis said.
“It creates a gap in public trust that doesn’t just affect transit. It affects education, it affects our potential for Front Range rail, which might involve an ask of the voters,” the governor said. “It involves funding for higher ed, it involves social services funding, it’s sort of a matter of, how do we restore that public trust?”
Polis acknowledged that neither the current RTD directors nor Johnson approved FasTracks. These leaders are simply in a position of having to administer a deal made 17 years ago, he said. He added that he didn’t think anyone would make this deal today, “but it doesn’t matter. The voters have been paying taxes for this project now since 2005, and so it’s just a question of how it can be expeditiously delivered.”
Other directors voiced a desire that the Board think regionally, not just about Northwest Rail. Denver Director Kate Williams asked her peers to consider that this FasTracks project is one of a handful that remains incomplete. “If we are going to support FasTracks completion 100%, then we need to do that – 100%, not just the Northwest Rail,” she said.
Director Shontel Lewis echoed the sentiment that her fellow directors think regionally. She said she would hate to see the Board move forward with this project “at the expense of the communities who are really dependent upon our services at this time.” She also raised concerns about access in the conversation and said that those without power and money need to be represented.
Director Peggy Catlin reminded everyone that enhanced bus service was also part of the FasTracks Plan, but that hasn’t occurred since those funds have been diverted to the FasTracks Internal Savings Account (FISA) to be applied to the unfinished projects. Currently, $124 million sits in the FISA.
Rivera-Malpiede thanked all of the community members who submitted comments to the RTD Board Office. She welcomed any additional public comments to be provided at the next full Board meeting, at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23.
At the close of the meeting, Johnson thanked Board members for their comments, questions and earnest dialogue about the constituencies that RTD serves. She thanked Polis for joining the meeting and voicing his thoughts, and she praised agency staff for their due diligence.
“I believe that our best path forward at this time is to ensure that we’re dealing with what we all collectively know,” she said, stating that she thinks that can’t happen until design work and environmental assessments are completed. With time having elapsed, and the landscape, development and community having changed, “we’d be remiss to look at something that was done some time ago, and not know what we’re dealing with collectively.”
Johnson recommended that staff return to the Board with more information – and, perhaps, a recommendation – within 60 days. “I think that’s the first step forward,” she said, “because right now we’re just talking in ambiguity.”
To watch and listen to the entirety of the study session, click here.