In Post column, Andrews failed to identify "analyst" as FasTracks critic who helped campaign against it

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

In a May 13 Denver Post column about the FasTracks light-rail project, John Andrews cited the work of Randal O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute and identified him as a "mass-transit analyst," but he didn't tell readers that O'Toole played a major role in the Independence Institute's public campaign against the 2004 referendum to fund FasTracks.

A May 13 column in The Denver Post by former Republican Colorado Senate president John Andrews arguing that voters "should repeal" the FasTracks light-rail transit funding measure they passed in 2004 referred to Randal O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute as a "mass-transit analyst." But Andrews did not mention that O'Toole was a key figure in the conservative Independence Institute's public campaign against FasTracks.

In the column, Andrews -- the founder and former president of the Independence Institute -- claimed that Metro Denver has an "ill-fated love affair with the Regional Transportation District," noting a "preliminary estimate by RTD staff in February predicted that the $4.7 billion construction cost [for FasTracks light rail] could become $6.5 billion":

A preliminary estimate by RTD staff in February predicted that the $4.7 billion construction cost could become $6.5 billion. In April, general manager Cal Marsella conceded that "revenues are coming down pretty fast." A billion dollars short on the income side, plus $1.8 billion in expense overruns, suddenly leaves the project barely half funded. The choice facing taxpayers and commuters appears to be either thwarted desire (yet again) or heavier alimony.

On April 19, the Post reported that Marsella said "RTD's FasTracks transit expansion will continue to face cuts because of financial problems, but the agency will meet its promise to complete all rail lines and bus service improvements over the next 10 years." The Post noted, "FasTracks could cost at least $2 billion more than originally planned and that sales-tax revenues aimed at paying for it could be $1 billion less than anticipated." Marsella did "acknowledge that [RTD] will reduce train frequencies in places, alter bridge designs and take other measures to reduce costs," according to the article.

In his column Andrews referred to "mass-transit analyst Randall [sic] O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute," who reportedly said that "the key [to successful light rail] is giving a private partner both a downside for cost control and an upside for profits":

[O'Toole] warns that if Denver lets bidders pass through their overruns, as was done for the "design-build-operate-maintain" deals in New Jersey, Minnesota, and his home state of Oregon, taxpayers gain nothing.

With unions trying to reclaim bus routes that used to be competitively bid, tough contracting in RTD is out. So color me skeptical. O'Toole also notes that airport lines are the poorest performers in any rail system.

I like his recommended alternative to rail in a 2004 study, bus-rapid transit (BRT) lines and high-occupancy/toll lanes. HOT lanes on north Interstate 25 are relieving congestion and yielding double the predicted revenue, as the Colorado Tolling Enterprise chairman wrote in a letter to The Post last Monday.

In promoting O'Toole's "recommended alternative to rail," Andrews did not disclose that O'Toole is the director of the Independence Institute's Center for the American Dream, which claims to have "revealed that rail transit reduces the livability of every urban area in which it is found." Andrews also did not inform readers that O'Toole was a key figure in the Independence Institute's campaign against FasTracks or that he wrote issue backgrounders, papers, and editorials for the think tank, including:

  • The Hidden Cost of FasTracks
  • Ten Reasons to Oppose FasTracks
  • Rail Transit Reduces Urban Livability
  • The False Panacea of Renewable Energy
  • Why Slow Tracks Won't Help Denver
  • The Greatest Invention: How Automobiles Made America Great
  • Rail Disasters 2005
  • The Full Truth About FasTracks
  • MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.] on RTD

From John Andrews' May 13 Denver Post column, "Desire, deficits and our light rail":

Metro Denver's ill-fated love affair with the Regional Transportation District has dragged on for a third of a century. Like many a dysfunctional relationship, it has featured cosmetics and broken promises on one side, gullibility and an open checkbook on the other. Can this marriage be saved?

[...]

RTD started collecting sales tax in the early 1970s on the promise of building such trains by 1980. Those 93 miles of rail never happened, nor did the tax cut that was to follow them. Decades later, the agency finally built the Five Points line, then Southwest, then Southeast, without increasing taxes. Voters in 2004 approved FasTracks, a 67 percent tax hike to construct 119 miles of light rail on six lines by 2017. But deficits now have the tracks going nowhere fast.

A preliminary estimate by RTD staff in February predicted that the $4.7 billion construction cost could become $6.5 billion. In April, general manager Cal Marsella conceded that "revenues are coming down pretty fast." A billion dollars short on the income side, plus $1.8 billion in expense overruns, suddenly leaves the project barely half funded. The choice facing taxpayers and commuters appears to be either thwarted desire (yet again) or heavier alimony.

Au contraire, says Marsella. "We're still going to deliver the program as advertised," he insisted in a TV debate on April 20. Maybe even better than advertised, if you believe his sales pitch in a front-page Post story on April 15. There, the glib GM touted a previously unmentioned "maglev" supertrain to DIA and a private-partnership escape route from the budget trap. Marsella enthuses that the private angle "opens opportunities for any and all alternatives" to rescue FasTracks.

As a privatization advocate, I'd like to believe that. But according to mass-transit analyst Randall O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute, the key is giving a private partner both a downside for cost control and an upside for profits. He warns that if Denver lets bidders pass through their overruns, as was done for the "design-build-operate-maintain" deals in New Jersey, Minnesota, and his home state of Oregon, taxpayers gain nothing.

With unions trying to reclaim bus routes that used to be competitively bid, tough contracting in RTD is out. So color me skeptical. O'Toole also notes that airport lines are the poorest performers in any rail system.

I like his recommended alternative to rail in a 2004 study, bus-rapid transit (BRT) lines and high-occupancy/toll lanes. HOT lanes on north Interstate 25 are relieving congestion and yielding double the predicted revenue, as the Colorado Tolling Enterprise chairman wrote in a letter to The Post last Monday.

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