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By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor
Henry Stopplecamp is a true railroader — which is why being part of building a brand new railroad has been the thrill of a lifetime.
Stopplecamp is assistant general manager of capital programs for Denver's Regional Transportation District (RTD), which has been carrying out a massive, multiyear, multibillion-dollar expansion of transit services. Known as FasTracks, the program involves building more than 100 miles of light- and commuter-rail lines, bus rapid transit (BRT) lines and dozens of new stations. RTD also redeveloped Union Station in downtown Denver under the program.
FasTracks officially was born in 2004, when Denver-area voters approved a four-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax to help pay for one of the largest transit expansions in the nation. Since then, Denver has undergone a transportation transformation, with rail and BRT corridors extending for miles in all directions across the metro area.
Stopplecamp has been along for the entire FasTracks ride. He joined RTD 18 years ago after serving BNSF Railway Co. for six years in positions that involved wastewater treatment operations, large-scale remediation projects, emergency response and maintenance-of-way services.
Now, Stopplecamp is responsible for all aspects of FasTracks projects. Being part of designing and building a new rail system has been “invigorating,” he says.
"FasTracks gave us the ability to design a system that met the current needs of the community — versus taking an old rail system and cobbling it together to meet people’s transportation needs," he says. "For a railroader, you can’t ask for a better opportunity."
The process of designing rail corridors to serve passengers led not only to new light- and commuter-rail lines, it also helped improve the flow of freight-rail traffic through the Denver area, notes Stopplecamp.
RTD still has some FasTracks construction underway and a few projects that have been postponed. However, RTD officials have begun the transition from "management of a large-scale capital construction program to a maintenance program for a large multimodal transit infrastructure in a state of good repair," according to the agency’s 2017 "State of the District" report.
The first FasTracks rail line — the West Line — opened in April 2013 with 12.1 miles of new rail between Denver, Lakewood and Golden, Colorado. The redeveloped Union Station — which featured a new 22-gate underground bus concourse and new commuter-rail platforms — opened in May 2014. RTD opened two lines in 2016: the 23-mile University of Colorado A Line that provides connections between downtown Denver, Denver International Airport and a number of communities along Interstate 70; and the B Line, a 6.2-mile commuter-rail segment between Westminster and Union Station.
Early last year, the R Line opened, running from southeast Denver through Aurora, with a connection to the University of Colorado A Line at Peoria Station. By the end of 2017, RTD was operating service on nearly 88 miles of light- and commuter-rail lines, according to the agency’s “State of the District” report.
And on Jan. 14 this year, RTD launched the L Line loop, which replaced the D Line between the 18th and Stout Station and the 30th and Downing Station. It runs on existing track as a "loop" around downtown Denver. This summer, the G Line will open, traveling 11 miles between Union Station and Wheat Ridge, passing through northwest Denver, Adams County and Arvada.
Stopplecamp and his team are now deep into preventive maintenance, a concept that he says was ingrained in him during his BNSF days and, before that, his military stint.
"I've done a lot of construction and a lot of maintenance, and the maintenance starts on Day 1 of revenue service," he says. "You can’t wait until stuff starts breaking down to start inspections. I was involved in all aspects of the concept, planning, design and construction of these [FasTracks] corridors and it's always been in the plan that we maintain them."
That the RTD planned early on to maintain a state-of-good repair may set Denver apart from Baltimore, New York City, Washington, D.C. and other major U.S. cities where "legacy" systems have endured high-profile closures and service disruptions due to mechanical issues and maintenance problems.
According to the Eno Transportation Center — which last month released a report titled "Tools for a Smoother Ride: Managing Rail Assets and Leveraging Competition" — transit-rail systems in some U.S. cities need major track maintenance overhauls, “but the real overhaul needs to be in how agencies conduct their asset management and maintenance programs.”
"Track inspectors and front-line workers are the most keenly aware of the long-term problems with deferred maintenance, but face legacy work rules and limited budgets to invest in modern asset management systems," the Eno report stated. "Agency leadership and boards prioritize system expansion over the needs to keep the system in a state of good repair."
But in Denver, a key aspect of the FasTracks program is budgeting dollars to maintain the track, stations, rolling stock and entire infrastructure, RTD officials say.
"We are budgeting and scheduling routine inspections and maintenance," says Stopplecamp. "And the FRA has a very rigid set of inspection requirements, which also helps us to ensure that we are out there to verify that everything is in good shape. … A lot of the [FasTracks] construction folks are sliding over to the state-of-good repair side of the system."
Maintaining FasTracks assets became a strategic priority as early as 2010, when the RTD board established a new division to oversee those efforts, according to RTD Chief Executive Officer and General Manager David Genova. The division reported to the agency’s safety program, which at the time Genova ran as the agency's chief safety officer. As a result, he’s had oversight of FasTracks' maintenance and asset management from the get-go.
"We now have an incredibly robust asset management and state-of-good repair program, and we have a lot of great data behind what we’re doing," says Genova. "Every asset in our organization gets an annual condition assessment, so at any moment in time we have a good handle on our risk in terms of what is the state of good repair for our infrastructure and our bus and rail fleets."
Among the big challenges the agency’s execs face on the operations side: finding enough people to run and maintain a transit system that's been through billions-of-dollars-worth of expansion in a relatively short span of time. Although the entire transit industry is grappling with a labor shortage due to its aging workforce, the fast growth of rail and bus services has exacerbated the problem for RTD, says Genova.
"We opened four corridors in a 14-month period, which has had some implications," says Genova. "Right now, we have a significant shortage of bus and rail operators."
RTD's recruitment and retention efforts have included wage increases for new and current employees; financial incentives for people who work odd or split shifts; sign-on bonuses for certain job categories; and referral bonuses for employees who bring in job applicants who are hired. Still, it's a struggle to maintain employment levels at about 90 percent of approved headcounts, says Genova.
Besides maintaining the FasTracks program, RTD leaders also have had to try to maintain voter, community, political and business support for its various projects — especially as construction timelines lengthened and project costs rose over time. FasTracks hit a rocky stretch in 2007-2008 when the Great Recession took hold, sales tax revenue plunged and construction costs soared.
Managing expectations — the needs versus the wants — of FasTracks was difficult, says Stopplecamp. RTD leaders faced the dilemma of asking voters for another tax increase or canceling some projects.
Neither were good options, so they moved on to Plan B. To make up for the budget deficit, they examined new financing options, developed relationships with local stakeholders and found new ways to manage debt. They focused on building as much as possible as fast as possible.
Still, some projects are now on hold until funding solutions are determined and the agency pays down some of its debt. Those projects include 33 miles of commuter-rail service on the Northwest Corridor (the B Line) to Boulder and Longmont; the last 5 miles of the 18.5-mile North Metro rail line; and a 2.5-mile extension of the Southwest rail line.
The fact that some rail-line construction has been delayed for a yet-to-be determined time has not always been well received by the affected communities. That’s pressured RTD leadership to be transparent about FasTracks' status with taxpayers, riders, stakeholders and other community leaders, says RTD Chairman Doug Tisdale, an attorney and former mayor of the village of Cherry Hills.
Another challenge for agency leaders: maintaining public support for the commuter-rail service on the Northwest Corridor or the B Line, which is proposed to run from Union Station all the way to Boulder and Longmont. The line's first leg has been built from downtown Denver to Westminster, but the balance to Boulder and Longmont has been postponed “and will not be under construction for years to come,” says Tisdale.
Congressional representatives, mayors, community leaders and private citizens have peppered RTD leaders and board members with questions about the Northwest Corridor's future, says Tisdale.
"They're asking us, 'What happened to the construction of that line?'" he says. "And when you're dealing with the public, that obligation to communicate is something that never ends. You have to continue telling your story, share what happened [to the unfinished rail line] and what your plans are to go ahead."
This month, RTD representatives will have a chance to share the upside of the FasTracks story when Denver hosts the American Public Transportation Association’s annual Rail Conference June 10-13. Tisdale and Genova say they hope to drive home the point that the Denver area’s commitment to building a new transit system is paying off for the public in myriad ways.
"We've done so much more than put in new rail corridors," says Stopplecamp. "It's also the infrastructure that we've touched along the way: the new bridges and other things we put in, replaced or rehabbed — it's been a huge public works project that benefits the entire region."
The predominate message is how much infrastructure work can be done in a short period of time with the proper support around transit investment, says Genova.
"We were able to do FasTracks because we were able to pull together local and regional stakeholders to support a transit expansion and were successful at talking to the public about the benefits," he says. "That support was critical."
Also crucial was the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) to finance and build some key portions of FasTracks. After the recession took a big bite out of RTD's sales tax revenue, PPPs helped the agency complete some FasTracks projects sooner than later. The PPP model is one that the U.S. Department of Transportation has endorsed to leverage public funds for infrastructure projects.
RTD was an early adopter of the concept, with the Eagle P3 project as one example. Part of FasTracks, the $2.2 billion Eagle P3 project involved construction of the A and G lines and first segment of the Northwest Line to Westminster; the procurement of 54 commuter-rail cars; and construction of a rail maintenance facility.
Funding for the Eagle P3 came from federal grants and loans, RTD sales taxes and contributions from Denver Transit Partners, the project's private-sector contractor. Eagle P3 received a $1.03 billion Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration.
Another PPP example: In 2013, RTD received an unsolicited proposal from a partnership comprising Graham Contracting Ltd., Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. and Harmon Contractors Inc. to design and build the North Metro Line, which still is under construction.
"Public-private partnerships can work," says Tisdale, adding that he sees potential for private-sector involvement in other efforts at RTD, including in some of the remaining, yet-to-be financed elements of FasTracks.
Those opportunities will come in a few years, after RTD pays off some of its existing bonds and debt instruments used to finance portions of FasTracks.
Moreover, the FasTracks investment has produced “phenomenal economic development” around it, Tisdale and Genova point out. Every dollar invested in FasTracks — about $5.6 billion so far — results in a $4 economic impact to the area, they say.
As the FasTracks' infrastructure construction components wind down, RTD senior leaders have begun looking ahead to the bigger picture: What will the agency's role be in Denver's future mobility strategy? Every week, RTD execs hold regular brainstorming sessions on that question, a discussion they internally call "transportation transformation," says Genova.
"We spend an hour just talking about what transportation and mobility will look like in the future and what our role will be," he says. "We're trying to work toward decisions on what will be sustainable mobility options and not just what's the next shiny new toy."
Moreover, Genova's team is developing an executive summary of FasTracks' history, identifying what worked and didn't work in the process — and what future opportunities the investment may yet bring.
Whatever RTD's future may hold, AGM Stopplecamp says he’s looking forward to being a part of it. The FasTracks program has been a "win-win" for the entire region, he believes.
"I'm still excited about it and plan on being here the rest of my career," Stopplecamp says. "I'll be working on the state-of-good repair, making sure those priorities are in place — and training the next generation to take over the railroad."
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