Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Like here in Denver, the Orange County Transportation Authority in California has expressed an interest in constructing light rail. The conflict of interest is obvious. If OCTA finds in favor of LRT, it gets a bigger budget, more staff, more prestige, and more power.

Suspecting that the OCTA might be overstating the benefits, a Grand Jury was convened to investigate the claims being made by the local transit agency and to study the process by which this decision will be made.

The Grand Jury Report was released in May 1999. The Grand Jury was not kind in its comments about OCTA activities. Jurors looked at 12 LRT systems built in various parts of the country over the last two decades and found that none can be called a success. The report stated that the national experience with urban LRT systems ability to solve traffic congestion, air pollution, and related urban problems has been poor.

Criticizing the OCTA for doing more promoting than studying, the Jurys analysis suggests that Orange County would experience, negligible impact on traffic congestion, less effectiveness than predicted, more expense than predicted, an inflexible system, and no improvement in commuter travel times, energy conservation, or safety.

The Jury went on to instruct OCTA to amend outreach programs to include data on the national experience, to establish and publish measurable goals, and that disinterested experts should provide historical perspectives. The Jury suggested that the public deserves full disclosure of all perceived benefits, drawbacks, costs and impacts that this project would have before it is approved or disapproved.

In short, the Orange County Grand Jury ordered its government transit agency to stop lying.

Perhaps a Grand Jury is needed to look into the Regional Transportation District. RTDs recent cancellation of its public forum on LRT is merely the most recent example in a long history of questionable actions.

The decision to have the Great Debate was approved early in 1999 by the new RTD Board. With a budget of $30,000, six nationally recognized experts were invited to debate both sides of the issue on September 13.The Urban Land Institute, a pro-LRT group, was allowed to become a co-sponsor by contributing an additional $10,000.

Because the question about LRT effectiveness is nationwide, interest was national. C-SPAN and CNN considered coverage. Advocates on both sides looked forward to offering their best arguments.

The debate controversy started when RTD decided to charge a higher admission fee to the general public than to elected officials and bureaucrats. With some free admissions, the anticipated 200 attendees would have produced about $5,000.RTDs decision to cancel the debate will cost RTD more money than to have waived the registration fee altogether. Is it possible that another agenda is at play? Is it possible that RTD feared that the debate would put too much information in front of the public immediately prior to its November tax election?

RTD deceit has a long history. The 1973 special election that gave RTD its current sales tax base experienced several election irregularities. Voters have yet to be offered the opportunity to re-authorize the 10 year plan approved in 1973.That election authorized 20% to increased bus service. The remainder was for rapid transit construction (not LRT). Having spent the money on bus service, RTD asked for another tax increase in 1980 for LRT.

Undeterred by the 1980 defeat, RTD continued to spend millions without authorization on planning and right-of-way. Finally in 1990 RTD spent $116,000,000 to construct the LRT demonstration line. But before demonstration line performance data was available, RTD proceeded to extend LRT south on Santa Fe Drive. The extension was to cost taxpayers $177,000,000.At RTD the $20,000,000 spent on Santa Fe right-of-way is not a cost because it is hidden. In total, RTD has subversively spent over $300,000,000 on LRT without authorization.

Much of what RTD tells the public is less than true. RTD frequently claims increasing ridership without mentioning that they count boardings, not people. Even those increases are smaller than population growth or RTDs increasing tax take. This means, of course, that unit costs are increasing and market share is decreasing.

The LRT ridership numbers estimated for the I-25 Corridor are 30,000 versus 300,000 for the highway. But the counting methods differ. Similar counting yields that LRTs 3% market share would serve about 10% to 15% as many people as a single highway lane.

RTD has spent millions to propagate the false perception that LRT will relieve traffic congestion and air pollution. It is time that the truth be told. Because RTD cannot be trusted, Colorado should convene a Grand Jury to expose the truth.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow in Transportation Policy at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, http://i2i.org.

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