RTD, Jeffco eye deal on west light rail

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By AJ Vicens

Jefferson County and the Regional Transportation District are close to a deal that would restore some cuts previously made to the West Corridor light-rail project, but the deal relies on external funding and is far from a sure thing.

According to Jeffco Commissioner Kevin McCasky, the county and RTD are working on an intergovernmental agreement, commonly referred to as an IGA, that would accept RTD’s proposals for cuts in service to the West Corridor in exchange for improved bus service in Jeffco and assurances that RTD would try to help the county secure outside funding to restore cuts.

McCasky and an RTD official expect the agreement to be drawn up in the next few days, with formal approval and acceptance by Jeffco commissioners and the RTD board of directors to follow.

The West Corridor is one of the FasTracks projects, and refers to the light-rail service that will go west from downtown Denver through Lakewood and into Golden, ending at the Jefferson County government center. The project was originally slated to cost a little more than $500 million, but the price tag jumped more than $100 million. RTD proposed cutting service between the Denver Federal Center and the Taj Mahal from once every five minutes to once every 15 minutes, and to cut back on the number of parking spaces at a proposed garage at the Taj to about 400, down from more than 700. McCasky and other county leaders were upset that RTD would cut service, arguing that the demand for light-rail service and parking at the Taj would be much higher than RTD’s models predict, and that the mass-transit provider should live up to promises it made when Jeffco voters approved the FasTracks project.

But now McCasky says the external funding may be the only way to see service levels potentially reach the previously promised level.

“I don’t necessarily see a way around this,” McCasky said. He added that when the cuts were first proposed, and the county went to RTD with a counteroffer, RTD took that proposal to the Federal Transit Administration, which said that the county’s offer wouldn’t work under formulas used to dole out federal funding for the project.

“We’re in between realistically how are we going to manage this for our taxpayers who are paying the full fare, yet at the same time trying to compete with such a large dollar amount over construction costs that keep skyrocketing,” McCasky said.

The sought-after source of funding comes from the state of Colorado through legislation that creates a set-aside for transportation dollars that last year generated about $25 million. The deal Jeffco and RTD are working on relies on this funding to build a passing track at the Red Rocks Station, which would increase train frequencies to the Taj to once every 10 minutes, and to build another level on the parking garage that RTD is planning at the Taj.

“Our project as we have it now is moving forward and will only change if in fact that outside funding becomes available,” said Pauletta Tonilas, spokesperson for RTD and FasTracks. If the funding is not secured, then RTD will go ahead with its planned cuts in service and parking.

“That is really what we have figured into our project right now,” Tonilas said. “And the reason (is) we don’t have the budget to incorporate those other elements.”

Tonilas said the IGA Jeffco is pursuing would add that passing track and increase the number of parking spaces built by RTD to 835, 700 of which would be for transit use only.

Tonilas said she’s not sure if the outside funding will become available.

“We can’t really say at this point,” Tonilas said. “We’re really in the beginning stages of taking it through that process, so we can’t say whether or not this will become a reality. We’re going to do everything within our efforts to make that possible, but we obviously agreed to work with Jeffco on making that become a reality, but it is really out of our hands whether or not that can actually happen.”

McCasky sees the proposed agreement as making “big headway” into the mass-transit issues facing Jeffco. He said added bus service to places like Southwest Plaza and the Taj are “critical.”

“So we feel like we’ve gained something there,” McCasky said.

Contact A.J. Vicens at: aj@evergreenco.com.