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RTD: Voters support tax hike for FasTracks

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Jeffco officials question purported support in the county

By AJ Vicens

The Regional Transportation District says more than 60 percent of residents in the eight-county Denver metro area would support a tax increase to finish the FasTracks expansion by 2017, but some in South Jeffco aren't so sure.

"I don't think that would happen," said Justin Everett, a South Jeffco Republican who is president of CoHOPE, a coalition of area homeowner associations. Everett said CoHOPE hasn't taken an official position, but his personal opinion is that a tax increase wouldn't fly.

"We shot down Foothills (Park & Recreation District); we shot down a tax increase for the schools," he said, referring to recent failed tax-increase proposals. "If you're not going to vote for children, you're not going to vote for transportation either."

FasTracks was approved by voters in 2004 to expand RTD's light rail and bus system throughout the metro area. The project was originally slated to cost $4.7 billion, but the price tag has ballooned over the last year and a half to nearly $8 billion. The west corridor line, which would run from downtown Denver to the Jefferson County Courts and Administration Facility in Golden, was originally pegged at $511 million but is now projected to cost $711 million.

Newly elected Jeffco Commissioner Faye Griffin, also a Republican, said she's personally not in favor of any tax increases in the current economy. She stressed that she doesn't speak for the entire board on the issue, but said with proposed fee increases for everything from motor vehicle registration to instituting tolls on existing roads, one more tax would not go over well. She added that RTD should have done a better job predicting how much the project would cost, and how long it would ultimately take.

"I think people are probably tired of being taxed," Griffin said. "That's my opinion. (RTD) promised something when we voted for (FasTracks), then they're saying there's delays, and construction prices have gone up. I don't know who they had to do the information that was on the ballot when we voted for this."

Jeffco Commissioner Kathy Hartman, a Democrat, isn’t persuaded that Jeffco voters wouldn't support a tax increase, but said now isn’t the time.

"Jefferson County was actually quite positive," Hartman said, referring to RTD's survey. "But the point was made that surveys and elections are very different things. What people say in a survey, and what they are actually willing to do in an election, may be very different things."

Fifty-eight percent of Jefferson County survey respondents favored a sales tax increase of up to 0.4 percent, according to RTD, while 36 percent thought it was a "bad idea."

Hartman represents metro area county commissioners on a committee formed by the Metro Area Mayors that studies the FasTracks issue. She said neither group has endorsed a tax increase for FasTracks.

"We are not there," Hartman said. "We are still talking about options."

Her personal opinion on raising taxes to finish FasTracks by 2017?

"I would not, under any circumstances, do it this year," she said. "After the (Jeffco Public Schools) election, I am not optimistic that something would get passed at this point, and I think the economy will weigh very heavily on people."

Pauletta Tonilas, spokeswoman for the FasTracks project, said RTD hasn't made any decisions about going to the public for a tax increase.

"The RTD board is taking public input, working with regional leaders, to figure this out," she said. She added that work on the west corridor has already begun, and the project will be completed by 2013. The west corridor was recently awarded more than $300 million in federal funding.

But as far as any tax increases, it's just too soon to tell, Tonilas said.

"This survey is jut one more tool, one more layer of information the Metro Area Mayors and RTD will use to finalize its position," Tonilas said. "While (a tax increase) has fared fairly well in the survey, we're not sure that's even what we're doing. There are a whole lot of things to consider."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.