29 May 2008

Beyond FasTracks

Two former Coloradans (Steve Boland and Dan Malouff, CU-Boulder graduates (classes of '95 and '03, respectively)) have put together a website entitled Beyond FasTracks (with nice graphics), hosted by the Denver Infill blog, that lay four different proposals for additional transit construction in Denver when the FasTracks project is done (the first line is planned to open in 2013; the last work is supposed to be finished in 2016) -- one at a projected $500 million cost, one for $1 billion, one for $2 billion and one for $4 billion.

The design is aimed at turning Denver's system into one that provides a genuinely transit served city, as opposed merely to one where it is easy to use transit to commute from the suburbs to downtown for work and big events. As they explain:

The FasTracks rapid transit network is designed primarily to shuttle suburban commuters to and from downtown. As a result, its coverage of urban neighborhoods where demand for transit is highest is incomplete. To compensate for this, we've concentrated on the urban core.

The Plans

The cheapest proposal at the Beyond FasTracks webiste calls for:

(1) new light rail from downtown to I-25 and Broadway along Broadway or Lincoln Boulevard; and

(2) street car service: (i) from downtown to the Cherry Creek mall area, (ii) along East Colfax connected to Union Station via a loop around the Southern and Western boundaries of the Auraria Campus, and (iii) through Five Points to the Highland Neighborhood in Northwest Denver; and

(3) six bus rapid transit lines, generally speaking (i) along Wadsworth, (ii) along Sheridan (i.e. Denver's Western border for the most part), (iii) along Colorado Boulevard, (iv) from downtown through Five Points and North Denver, (v) more or less along Alameda approximately where the number 3 bus route goes, and (vi) along Evans from Sheridan to Colorado Boulevard.

Notably, as defined by the authors, Denver already has a mix of street car and light rail service. North of Colfax Boulevard, where Denver's light rail trains move along streets that it shares with cars, it qualifies as a street car under their classification scheme. South of Colfax Boulevard, where Denver's light rail system has dedicated right of ways, it qualifies as surface light rail.

The $4 billion proposal would put light rail, elevated rail and/or subway lines along the corridors where street car service is proposed in the less expensive plan, and extend the improvements in those corridors a little further, more notably connecting the Cherry Creek Mall area to the I-25 and Colorado Boulevard light rail station. It would also make modest expansion and add addition spurs to the proposed bus rapid transit network.

All of the proposed improvements, with the exception of a small portion of the bus rapid transit expansions, would be within the City and County of Denver proper.

How Solid Is It?

The backers of the plan explain some of their assumptions:

East Colfax Avenue is, by far, the Front Range's busiest transit corridor, and one with tremendous redevelopment potential. Cherry Creek is Denver's second downtown, and a popular destination for shoppers from all over Colorado. South Colorado Boulevard is lined by towers but choked with traffic. The Golden Triangle, Uptown and Highlands are Denver's most rapidly urbanizing neighborhoods. Yet each of them will continue to be served only by ordinary buses.

This project began as an open-ended exercise . . . using existing ridership and population density data, to envision a rapid transit system that would go where it's needed. . . .

Please think of these maps not as specific plans, but as ideas — as brainstorming. Study of a Colfax streetcar extending as far east as Yosemite Street on the Aurora border is already underway . . . the Downtown Multimodal Access Plan is now detailing plans for a Downtown Denver circulator shuttle. . . RTD plans eventual extension of the Gold Line to Golden; and one little-known aspect of FasTracks will preserve right-of-way for a future rail line in the Northeast Metro.

The emphasis on East Colfax Avenue and Broadway is appropriate.

Bus Route 15, which serves East Colfax, has the lowest subsidy per ride of any route in the entire RTD system, about $1.01 per ride in 2001 (the 15L at $1.35 per ride was fourth, and the 16, which serves West Colfax was third, at $1.21 per ride, and Bus Route 58, from Arvada to downtown Denver, was second at $1.16 per ride), excluding the free 16th Street mall shuttle and light rail.

The 15 and the 15L account for 6,430,016 trips per year, something rivaled only by light rail, the 16th Street mall shuttle, and the 3,003,149 annual trips on the combined 0 and 0L bus routes along Broadway and Lincoln Avenues, South of downtown Denver (even before considering other buses that also traverse that area).

This isn't an actual nuts and bolts Blueprint, but it is reality based.

Background Details On Transit Operating Costs In Denver

The subsidies per rider on various parts of RTD's service in 2001 were as follows (followed by data on the total annual number of rides in 2001 in each category):

16th Street Mall Shuttle $0.40 (16,495,486) (free shuttle in downtown Denver)
CU/CSU Game* $1.79 (27,169) (a single college football game in Denver)
Bronco Ride* $2.16 (387,986) (professional football home games)
Light Rail $2.01 (9,080,578)
Central Business District Local $2.42 (26,770,026)
Vanpools $2.56 (23,750)
Buffalo Ride* $3.25 (5,897)
Urban Local $3.32 (15,861,167)
Rockies Ride* $3.40 (221,952) (professional baseball home games)
skyRide $4.61 (1,899,475) (Denver International Airport service)
Express Routes $5.74 (3,020,984) (mostly serves commuters with fewer stops)
Senior Ride* $6.90 (92,804)
Regional Routes $7.09 (2,804,572) (intercity service within RTD boundaries)
Suburban Local $7.31 (3,530,642)
call-n-Ride $16.26 (71,746) (in suburban cities with little scheduled bus service)
Cultural Connection Trolley** $36.34 (4,703) (went from downtown to Cherry Creek)
access-a-Ride $44.80 (382,754) (for disabled riders)

* special irregular service routes
** discontinued

Heavy central business district and light rail traffic kept the per-ride operating cost subsidy for the RTD system as a whole down to a mere $2.71 per ride for a total of 80,336,868 rides in 2001.

Another notable point is that running small rather than large buses doesn't save much money.

Why don’t you use small buses during low ridership periods of the day?

The major cost of operating a bus is the driver (about 52%). The difference for fuel consumption (about 5% of the cost) is 5.6 miles per gallon for a 30’ bus, 4.5 mpg for a 40’ bus and 3.6 mpg for a 60’ articulated bus. Whenever possible RTD uses the right-sized bus; however, the time consumed pulling buses in and out of the garage often more than offsets other cost factors.

The data are obviously different in detail seven years later, but the general trends are likely to be similar.

Implications For the Overall Plan

They don't mention the fact, but one circumstance that also favors development of the urban part of the system is that the operating cost subsidy per ride is lower in central Denver than in the suburbs, because riders central Denver riders take shorter trips and both buses and trains tend to be more full, as shown above.

On the other hand, one has to have a certain amount of skepticism about the prospects of a major streetcar expansion in Denver given the dismal performance of the Cultural Connection Trolley that sought to fill a similar need.

One big flaw of the existing system, which is not addressed, is a shortage of parking at suburban light rail stations which materially suppresses ridership right now. Almost all stops on the surban side of the light rail system are pernnially full during commuting times, which limits the number of people who can take light rail. Expanding parking lots could easily increase fares and ridership while having only a negligible effect on operating costs.

The Costs

The basis of the cost calculations are disclosed, and appear reasaonble.

Our financial figures are not exact, obviously; in fact, they're little more than back-of-the-napkin guesstimates. Our plans might cost a bit more, or a little less, than advertised. We have attempted, however, to remain conservative in our accounting. Streetcar lines, for example, have recently been built in American cities for far less than we've assumed, and a light rail subway was recently constructed in Minneapolis for roughly half of what RTD estimated one would cost in its Central Connector study.

Specifically, they assume costs as follows:

• For bus rapid transit — limited buses made to behave like rail lines, with low-floor, multi-door vehicles for faster boarding, stops with shelters and wait-time displays, sensors that prevent stoplights and other enhancements, like Los Angeles' Metro Rapid system — $1 million per mile. . . .

• For streetcars — a sort of light light rail that can share the road with autos — $25 million per mile. Streetcars can be modern trams, like those found in Portland, Oregon, or vintage vehicles like those in New Orleans.

• For surface light rail, at-grade but in its own right-of-way, $50 million per mile.

• For elevated light rail, with no street crossings, $75 million per mile.

• For underground light rail, in a subway, $200 million per mile.

In one plan, we've also proposed an exclusive transitway for streetcars and rapid buses. Dedicated lanes with physical barriers to separate traffic might cost an extra $10 million per mile or so to build.

The cost numbers are comparable to the actual costs for FasTracks light rail and other comparable projects around the country.


They don't discuss financing this plan, but I will.

This suggests a financing arrangment in which RTD finances the operating costs and a small portion of the total bus infrastructure cost with a combination of existing taxes, users fees, federal transit dollars, and possibly some state and local governmental contributions. Any net increase in operating costs from the proposal would be modest, because the new services would replace existing low cost per passenger mile bus routes and would like increase ridership.

The major part of the infrastructure cost, including almost everything other than rapid bus transit, which would be within Denver, would presumably be financed with a combination of Denver proper taxes and federal (and possibly state) transit funds, with cooperations from, but the funding from, the rest of the RTD district. The suburbs would be unlikely to raise their taxes to pay for this kind of plan.

The City and County of Denver currently receives about $463 million a year in sales taxes and about $213 million a year in property taxes. Its total receipts, with most of the balance coming from users fees and governmental grants, are about $1,915 million a year.

Typically, a federally approved transit project receives an 80-20 capital expenditure match, so the local taxpayers share of the infrastructure for the least expensive plan would be something less than $100 million. If this were financed over ten years with Denver sales tax revenues, it would require a sale tax rate on the order of 0.1% after considering unbudgeted factors like interest costs (the core number before interest is about 0.08%, but increasing the scope of that project slightly to fit the symbolically important 0.1% number might make sense). By comparison, the Football Stadium tax and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District taxes are each 0.1% sales tax levies, and the RTD sales tax is 1.0% -- of which 0.4% was for FasTracks.

A 0.1 percentage point tax sales tax increase in Denver would increase sales taxes from 7.72% to 7.82%. But, the current football stadium tax expires no later than 2012, around the time that a new City and County of Denver transit sales tax, as a post-FasTracks project, would begin.

A ballot issue in the time frame of 2009-2011 would be appropriate for an initiative like this one, which would then take effect immediately upon the expiration of the stadium tax. Timing wise, a group to organize to take this step would have to begin work now or in the very near future.

The full fledge $4 billion plan would probably require a sales tax increase on the order of 0.4 percentage points (the same as FasTracks) over a twenty year period.

Neither the low, nor the high end figures are beyond the realm of political possibility in strongly pro-transit Denver.

The FasTracks proposal, with four times as large as tax as the amount necessary for the smallest proposal above, passed in the entire multi-county RTD district area with 57% of the vote, and in Denver, it received 65% of the vote. Since it was approved by voters, FasTracks has grown far more popular, with 79% of people surveyed six months ago thinking that it was a good idea.

The website's proposal, which would replace an expiring tax, would be a quarter the size of FasTracks in tax impact on Denver voters, would benefit Denver exclusively and be voted on exclusively by Denver voters, and would come at a time when the country is even more sensitive to the need for transit in the face of higher gasoline prices.

Of course, there is nothing sacred about using sales tax revenues to pay for transit. The Denver Occupational Tax, which is imposed on employers with workers in Denver on a per head basis (and hence captures commuters as well as residents), an increase in street parking charges, and a tax on private parking charges, for example, might all make sense as revenue sources for some or all of the proposal.

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