EDITORIAL: RTD must go back to voters to keep all metro rail-transit lines on track before it’s too late

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Time is running out for RTD to make right the FasTracks light-rail project that has gone so terribly wrong.

Back in 2004, metro voters did an astonishing thing. They voted, by a large margin, to raise sales taxes to the tune of about 4 cents on every $10 in purchases to build a metrowide light-rail system, dubbed FasTracks.

The key word here is “metrowide.” It was soon after, however, that the regional economy began to sour, the cost of construction materials began to rise and a cloud gathered over what appeared to be unrealistic revenue projections. For the past eight years, RTD has managed to press forward with rail projects to the west and to Denver International Airport. But despite increases in federal grants and innovative savings, it became clear there was no way to get metro rail on line in the 10 years or so it was promised. There would be many projects, including a key I-225 line to the Anschutz Medical Campus, that would languish.

The Aurora Sentinel and many others have pleaded with the RTD board to go back to voters to ask for the money to get the job done right and on time. The notion behind this request is that the metro-rail plan isn’t truly functional and capable of reducing road congestion until all segments are running, and that those regions that get working light-rail systems will have no compelling reason to approve another tax hike.

Just this summer, a minor miracle happened when the Kiewit construction company offered a design-build contract coinciding with enough existing and promised revenue to get Aurora’s postponed I-225 light-rail line back on track.

Here’s the problem. The two critical lines that would tie Boulder and northern communities, such as Westminster, Thornton, Northglenn, Adams County and Brighton, to Denver and DIA, have been pushed back to a date so far off, they don’t even matter.

RTD officials have pointed out that they still hope to uncover yet another small miracle to move construction of those two lines into the lifetimes of many northern residents.

Hope is not good government policy.

Anyone who’s had the misfortune of a prime-time commute on the northern I-25 corridor or the rush-hour trip from hell along U.S. 36 to Boulder can tell you that turning on light rail in 2035 is way, way too late.

Meanwhile, long awaited lines in Lakewood, Golden, Arvada and a line to DIA are getting closer to becoming a reality. When riders there, and even here in Aurora, start boarding trains, you can rest assured that the “we got ours” mentality will spell the end of any hope of approving another tax hike to get the job done.

We understand the political problem with asking for money, but it would be imprudent for the RTD board not to try. It won’t be easy, and transit officials must work to create a group willing to help persuade voters to finish the job and reap the rewards. Completing the FasTracks project everywhere is not only a critical transportation job, it’s an opportunity to heal the metro economy by creating jobs and growth all along these rail routes at transit oriented developments.

But time is running out. As these new lines began carrying passengers, the number of voters willing to see beyond their own train station will dwindle fast. Go to voters next year and get Front Range light rail back on track.