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An artist's rendering of the Colorado transit development project. (Denver RTD)
An artist's rendering of the Colorado transit development project. (Denver RTD)

Gary Mason

How Denver failed to plan for transit – and then got it right Add to ...

Denver is in the midst of one of the largest transit expansions under way anywhere in the United States.

If all goes as scheduled, the Denver metropolitan area, home to 2.8 million people, will have more than 160 kilometres of new light rail and commuter rail, nearly 30 kilometres of new bus rapid transit, as well as thousands of additional parking spaces at rail and bus stations after everything is completed in 2018. It’s all part of the FasTracks transit plan passed by voters in a 2004 referendum.

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The story of how FasTracks came to be is particularly pertinent in light of the transit referendum scheduled to be held in B.C. It is a cautionary tale that illustrates not only how much planning is necessary for a transit measure to succeed, but also what happens when that groundwork isn’t done.

Before FasTracks, local politicians in the Denver area went to voters with a similar proposition. Guide the Ride was a $6-billion (U.S.) proposal for a massive expansion of both light and commuter rail, as well as bus service. The idea was to pay for it over 20 years with a small increase in the sales tax. That was in 1997.

The referendum went down to defeat for several reasons. Firstly, the plan was overly ambitious and fraught with unknowns. The plebiscite asked voters to approve a four-tenths-of-a-per-cent increase in the sales tax to raise the necessary funds. However, the cost estimate for the project kept fluctuating, with some insisting it could be built for $6-billion, while others maintained it would be closer to $16-billion by the time the last bill was paid.

There was also a lack of unity among elected members of the regional transit authority (Denver’s version of TransLink), as well as mayors in the eight-county region that would be voting on the referendum. Unnerved by say-yes forces that did not seem particularly well organized or sure of themselves despite a couple of years to prepare, voters rejected the plan by a margin of 58 to 42 per cent. It’s worth noting that the plebiscite was not held in conjunction with any other vote. In the U.S., transit referendums generally enjoy more success when linked to an election of some kind.

It would be seven years before Denver’s transit authority would go back to voters with another large-scale transportation expansion plan. But this time, the transit body would get it right.

“The planning for FasTracks was years in the making,” says Pauletta Tonilas, senior manager of public relations for the Regional Transit District. “You could say it really got started soon after the defeat of Guide the Ride. I think everyone knew why it failed and there was a commitment to ensure it didn’t happen again.”

There were a couple of decisions made early on that would play major roles in FasTrack’s eventual success.

The scope of the project was scaled back, which neutralized criticisms of the earlier plan that it was too grand and too pricey. The estimated cost was set at $4.7-billion, more than a billion less than Guide the Ride. Also, the regional district commissioned some detailed design studies by reputable engineering firms that laid out the estimated cost of the project for all to see and scrutinize.

The reports would form the foundation of the regional district’s much-more-detailed pitch to voters, a vision which included maps that outlined where trains and buses would stop. The first draft of that plan was published in 2001, three years ahead of the ballot initiative. The specific nature of it made the project seem more real for voters, a far cry from the nebulous vision embodied in Guide the Ride.

Because the regional transit authority is not allowed to fund plebiscites, the campaign had to be organized primarily by the Denver business community. With the help of some other partners, the Chamber of Commerce raised $3.6-million that was used to fund an aggressive marketing strategy designed and led by a firm with an expertise in referendum initiatives.

“One of the biggest differences between FasTracks and Guide the Ride was the incredible co-operation and collaboration that occurred,” Ms. Tonilas said. “Everyone was on the same page – the politicians, community groups, business associations. It had the unanimous support of all 31 mayors in the district and that rarely happens.

“We had environmental groups on the same side as business. Everyone was fighting for the same cause and that helped drown out the dissenters, because there are always going to be some. Unless you have everyone, all the main players, pulling in the same direction on these things it’s very difficult to get passed.”

Wednesday: How FasTracks proponents framed their message.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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