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March 2011



Rail News: Passenger Rail

Denver RTD's board still unsure on 2011 FasTracks sales tax hike




By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Our March cover story, "Redefining Fast," detailed the Regional Transportation District of Denver's (RTD) $2 billion FasTracks expansion program budget gap, and how agency and local officials planned to resolve the financial woes and complete the program. On March 8, a few days after the issue went to press, RTD's board voted to pass this year's FasTracks financial plan. They also, made a decision on how to proceed with a future sales tax to fund a $2 billion gap in the FasTracks budget — sort of.

Board members plan to seek a four-tenths-cent sales tax increase in November 2012 to help generate additional revenue for the agency's massive expansion program. However, board members are leaving the option open to move the ballot measure up to November 2011 if additional data suggests voters would support the measure this year. The board has to make a final decision by May 3, which is the drop-dead date to let the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG)know if the agency plans to move forward with a ballot initiative, says FasTracks Public Information Officer Pauletta Tonilas.

"They're giving themselves another 30 to 60 days to evaluate all the information and make sure they vet this one more time with stakeholders and determine if 2011 is a viable year for an election," she says.

When Progressive Railroading spoke with Denver RTD, and local elected and business community officials in mid-February, they said they believed the board would pursue a 0.3 percent or 0.4 percent sales tax increase this year. At that time, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce had just released results from a poll it conducted in mid-December showing a large majority of respondents not only supported the FasTracks program, but were willing to pay more to fund it. Residents also wanted the lines built sooner rather than later.

However, in late February, the Coalition for Smart Transit, which was created in 2009 to rally support for FasTracks — released results from its own research that indicated voters might not be as willing to vote in favor of a tax increase in 2011. In recent weeks, the public has become more aware of the state and federal governments' financial problems, and is more focused on the economy and taxes, the coalition told board members in early March. In addition, RTD political consultants told the board that off-year elections typically attract older, more conservative voters. Holding off until 2012 would give RTD a better shot at getting voter approval, they said.

The varying recommendations have left board members uncertain on how to proceed.

"No one wants to hang their hat on any one piece of information. Just because a poll came in showing more modest support, the board isn't ready to shut the door on 2011," says Tonilas. "Polls are a snapshot for a moment in time, and while they are good indicators of how people are feeling, it's hard to make a decision just based on that."

During the next one to two months, RTD execs and project stakeholders will look at a number of factors to make a final decision on whether to proceed with a 2011 ballot measure, including economic conditions, the price of gas, stakeholder support and financial support.

"In a nutshell, nothing is for sure, but we are making progress," says Tonilas.

 



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