RTA Proposal on the Fast Track to Nowhere

Originally appeared in Fort Collins Weekly

15 June 2007
Eric Fried

I hate to say I told you so, but…who am I kidding? I love saying so. As predicted here, developer over-reach has killed the current prospects for a Rural Transportation Authority (RTA). Meanwhile, the Fort Collins City Council majority is being villified for doing its job: standing up for us regular folks against the moneyed special interests.

Predictably, news coverage in our comatose daily paper got it wrong. Our council did not reject the general idea of an RTA, but opposed this specific raw deal for Fort Collins taxpayers. A little history should prove enlightening.

Even before a 35-member RTA Steering Committee was chosen, a set of guiding principles was agreed upon, which included:
Enhancing the environment by promoting energy conservation and improving air quality;
Making development pay its fair share for the cost of the regional transportation infrastructure;
Using RTA funds for local needs rather than relieving the federal and state governments of their obligations.
Once these principles were agreed upon, they were totally ignored by the realtor/development interests who dominated the process. The final vote was only 14-4, meaning less than half the original steering committee supported it. That’s not even a quorum. When consensus proved impossible in the rush to put a proposal on this November’s ballot, the committee agreed to let the pro-taxpayer/pro-transit group write a minority report (“New Directions for Regional Transportation”), which it then tried to bury.

Our RTA was designed to reduce vehicle miles traveled, avoid our impending violation of federal ozone pollution laws (which could trigger draconian, mandatory measures) and provide for the mobility needs of an aging population. Public opinion varied on how much money should go to transit, but about half was the general idea.

Instead, the list of proposed projects includes about $250 million for new regional roads and intersections, and $1 million a year for rail transit. That’s less than crumbs! This proposal would increase vehicle miles traveled, reduce air quality, and force us to subsidize federal/state responsibilities. Worse, the bill includes about $44 million for I-25 and Highway 34 interchanges that McWhinney Enterprises, developers of Centerra, already agreed to pay for, but now hope to weasel out of. In a crazy coincidence, Rich Shannon, McWhinney’s vice president for infrastructure, was on the steering and project selection subcommittees. As proposed, about $300 from every local resident would go straight into Rich’s deep pockets. Like they say, some folks will rob you with a gun, and some with a pen. The pen works better. No bloodstains.

Fort Collins would be the big loser in this proposal. Funding would be shared based on population, but we still generate more tax money per capita, which would flow out by the tens of millions to growth-subsidizing neighboring towns. We would have the same one vote on the RTA board as Timnath, and like the Sopranos, once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Greeley, Loveland and Larimer County also have serious reservations and may opt out as well. But only our council – especially our lone female councilor, Lisa Poppaw – is being bullied and browbeaten by big-money boys bearing bogus polls.

The fact is, our local electorate is divided in three parts. One third votes against all tax increases, another third will consider new taxes if they pay for “conservative” measures like roads and jails, and the last third generally supports taxes for “liberal” measures like open space and multi-modal transit. No tax increase can pass without support from the last two thirds, making real compromise mandatory. In this case, some folks got greedy, resulting in a proposal in the fast lane to nowhere.

2008 will bring the report from Governor Ritter’s transportation task force, the northern I-25 Environmental Impact Statement, and the Front Range Rail Corridor study. Let’s go back to the drawing board to get it right and come up with a 21st century solution for next November’s ballot.

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