FasTracks, the commuter rail expansion throughout the Denver metro area, Boulder and Longmont is another $1 billion short.To finish the project as promised to voters in 2004, the Regional Transportation District said it needs another $1 billion for a total of $7.8 billion.When voters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax in November 2004 (four cents for every $10), RTD said the commuter rail expansion would cost a total of $4.7 billion."Were the voters low-balled?" 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger asked FasTracks."When we put the FasTracks cost estimates and sales tax projections together back in 2002-2003, we did that with the best available information that we had at the time," said FasTracks spokeswoman Paulette Tonilas.When 7NEWS questioned FasTracks about its costs in July 2011, Tonilas said the project would cost $6.8 billion. That total even took into account a billion dollar federal grant that had just been awarded to RTD.With the difference in cost, RTD is considering scaling back plans for the Northwest Rail Line from Westminster to Longmont."If we move forward with the Northwest Rail as intended, it would cost us $7.8 billion for the whole FasTracks program," said Tonilas.Instead of commuter rail, RTD may enhance the bus service along the Northwest Line. RTD will decide how to proceed at a March 20 meeting. If RTD decides to continue with the original plan, it will ask voters for another 0.4 percent sales tax increase."If we go to voters for another four-tenths of a percent sales tax increase, we're pretty certain that we'll be able to get the program done by 2020 and Northwest rail by 2024," said Tonilas."Is 'pretty certain' good enough for voters?" asked Zelinger."'Pretty certain' is about what we can guarantee for now," said Tonilas. "It's up to the voters. It's up to the public, but we fully understand why people would question whether or not this would be enough money."
Why Does RTD Need More Money For FasTracks?
RTD has produced varied estimates over the last few years for the final costs of FasTracks.
RTD blames the higher project cost on lower sales tax collection, high construction costs and new, mandatory requirements that didn't exist when the sales tax question was put before voters in 2004."We didn't do this in a silo, kind of in our own world. We had a lot of experts that reviewed the cost estimates and revenue projections," said Tonilas. "When your costs go up significantly and your sales tax revenues come in way lower than you projected, you have a perfect storm. We have things like copper, concrete, diesel fuel (and) steel that escalated to costs that nobody could have anticipated."Tonilas also pointed out new rules regarding rail requirement by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.In 2005, a California man attempting suicide drove his sport utility vehicle onto commuter rail tracks. He got out of his car before a commuter train slammed into it, killing 11 people. As a result of that crash and others, RTD said it is now required to pay for certain safety features along the rail lines shared with BNSF.According to Tonilas, BNSF also requires FasTracks to pay up front for operating time slots to share the tracks, where as the original plan allowed FasTracks to pay over time."There've been a lot of things that we've had to build into the program that were not part of the original cost estimates, and these were things that came about after the vote," said Tonilas.
New Sales Tax Would Generate $160 Million Each Year
Just like the sales tax that voters approved in 2004, a new 0.4 percent sales tax in 2012 would also generate $160 million each year."Is the four-tenths this time around over-budgeting? You're asking for more than you really need, to be safe?" asked Zelinger."Well, you always want to buffer in, in your financial plan, so that you factor in things that are the unforeseen," said Tonilas. "We feel much more certain about our financial situation.""Is there any guarantee it will be done in 2020, 2025?" asked Zelinger."We can give a pretty good, certain feeling that it's going to be done by that timeframe. Obviously nobody can give guarantees," said Tonilas.According to Tonilas, if RTD asks voters for another sales tax increase, it would go away in phases once the project is paid for.The original 2004 sales tax will remain."We will be utilizing that tax for many years to operate the system," said Tonilas.RTD should decide on March 20 how to continue with the Northwest Rail Line and whether it will ask voters for another tax increase.