Saturday, April 21, 2007

How Much Of FasTracks Will We Get?

As the FasTracks program moves forward, it'll be interesting to see how much of it lives up to the original $4.7 billion system the voters actually approved. The main problem is that the project is already $2 billion over budget. To compound the issue collection of the sales tax has been slower originally claimed. At the lower pace, it will come up a $1 billion short. This means RTD needs to find new funding sources for the project and ways to save money.

The West Corridor is the Fastracks line that will open. It's planned on being completed early in 2013 (8 1/2 years after funding was approved). But it's running into problems. It's already $113 million over it's $511.8 million budget (20% over budget; note : RTD is telling the Feds that the projected costs are $593 million). They looked at several alternatives for this and other lines but most of them don't meet legal requirements. Other changes such as modifying the drainage system so it no longer built to handle 100 year storms (likely to happen once every 100 years but that doesn't mean you can't have them more frequently) to only capable of properly handling run-off from five year storms will save $4 million in upfront construction costs but will likely result in higher maintenance costs in the future. They're also looking at building part of the line as single track (will slow down operations and increase risks of accidents), not building some pedestrian bridges at stations and not installing security equipment.

To compound the problem, as Fastracks slowly moves forward more and more communities across the US are queuing up for Federal funding. There are literally hundreds of projects in the works right now that are planning on getting Federal money to cover half of their construction costs. So far there are less than 30 that have qualified for New Starts Funding (section 5309 funds). Currently only the West Corridor has been appropriated $4.9 million of the $35 million recommended in News Starts Funding. How much will the West Corridor get in the end for it's FFGA (Federal Funding Grant Agreement)? If it's anything less than the $290.6 million RTD is asking for, will it necessitate even more cuts on the West Corridor or even other lines? It's not clear with one source saying that the original plan was for the Federal government to cover only $815 million of the $4.7 billion costs. This would mean that they're planning on using over 1/3 of their federal funding for just one line. It may also mean that they're planning on more federal funding down the road than they originally said they would seek. Either way with some projections showing that planned requests from transit projects across the country being 5 times more than what Federal funding is expected to be available, it's going to be tough to get every penny they're planning on getting.

So how is RTD going to come up with the money? The referendum that was passed did promise "increased bus service". It's unlikely they could make cuts in other areas to such as bus service without losing a law suit. But the referendum didn't promise light rail or specific improvements on the proposed corridors. Some of that was because they were planning heavy rail (aka commuter rail) on some corridors such as the line from Denver to Boulder to Longmont and the DIA line. But with it being common for these sort of projects to face cost overruns, could they also have done it so they could cut corners later? If they build the Gold Line as a street car line and offer less frequent service as they're proposing to do, there isn't much the voters can likely do. Even though it will mean the service will be less likely to get drivers out of cars and reduce congestion. As Jon Caldara, a form RTD board chairman recently asked, isn't it time for RTD to say they were wrong?