Atlanta's transportation future could have roadmap in Denver

Our gridlock propelled Colo. region’s 2004 tax.

We’re bringing you metro Atlanta’s best and deepest coverage of the 2012 transportation vote. For this story, we spent time in Denver to see what our community can learn from that city’s transportation effort.

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DENVER — Tom Clark sits in his fourth-floor office in downtown Denver, fondly recalling metro Atlanta’s failure to solve its epic traffic congestion with highway widening. Clark, tasked with luring companies and jobs to Denver, exploited metro Atlanta’s example in a campaign to persuade Denver voters to finance transportation investment with a new tax.

“We used it against you,” he said. “Sorry.”

The Denver campaign, in 2004, won big. And no, he’s not really sorry.

Now, however, Denver’s vote is an example for the Atlanta region — of a success at the polls that metro leaders hope to emulate, of grievous missteps that they hope to avoid, of a $6.8 billion plan that transit advocates envy and of a new government program that anti-tax forces view with skepticism.

Since then, Atlanta’s regional leaders studied Denver’s vote and witnessed its transportation system, and Denver’s campaign consultants will try to repeat their success here. As the 10-county metro Atlanta region prepares for its 2012 vote on a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation projects, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month traveled to Denver to report on that region’s path to inking a multibillion-dollar check for trains and buses, and on lessons Atlanta can take from Denver.

Whether Atlanta should follow Denver’s path is an open question, but the two regions grapple with the same core problem: traffic congestion so bad it threatens the region’s vitality. As in Denver, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Phoenix and other regions where voters have levied regional transportation sales taxes, Atlanta leaders see transportation investment as a key weapon in an all-out battle to get companies to move jobs to the area and keep them here.

Turning dirt

While Atlanta’s referendum is all still theory, 1,400 miles to the west, Denver’s win is a concrete reality. As a result of their mark on the ballot seven years ago, residents of the eight-county Denver Regional Transportation District are paying an extra 4 cents on every $10 purchase, and the vast “FasTracks” rail expansion is under way.

It was the largest voter-approved all-transit expansion in U.S. history at the time, according to the RTD. Track is being laid, commuters are planning their escape from congestion, and yes, jobs are coming. The first passengers should step on FasTracks-funded trains in about two years.

Would-be passengers can learn what riding some of the FasTracks trains will feel like, since Denver already has a couple of light-rail lines open, funded by previous initiatives.

Where Atlanta’s project list will have roads and mass transit, Denver’s 2004 list was almost all transit, aiming to produce a rail system more than three times as big as Atlanta’s 48-mile MARTA, for a metro area less than half as populous.

And you can see its beginnings: Across from Mile High Stadium where the Denver Broncos play, a new station is going up to serve a new rail line. Approaching a towering center where 6,000 federal employees work, a new light-rail bridge now spans Sixth Avenue — a major highway prone to rush-hour stop-and-go molasses. Workers are pouring concrete passenger platforms at a massive park-and-ride lot near St. Anthony Hospital, a big employer which has just expanded and relocated near a future stop.

In the western suburb of Lakewood, resident Keith Dameron has picked up and moved from downtown Denver so he could buy a house between two future light-rail stations. And downtown near Union Station, health care company DaVita Inc. is building its new world headquarters, partly to be near a vibrant transportation hub that is under construction.

The existing Denver light-rail lines run in their own tracks, but often at street level, alongside cars. Near the stops — some at special station platforms, some on sidewalks like bus stops — the street rings with “dings.”

On a recent Thursday, the F line was packed with businesspeople and vacationing students traveling from downtown Denver to the southern suburbs, and in the opposite direction passengers headed north to downtown evening entertainment or home from employment hubs such as Denver Tech Center.

“I’d definitely vote for it again,” said Terry Jackson, 49, a software engineer who lives in Lafayette and works at the Tech Center, and saves money in gas and parking.

Overall, the transit expansion, dubbed “FasTracks,” is set to transform Denver, many local residents said, from its “cowtown” past to a future as a world city. “It’s the transportation, economic and environmental backbone of our future,” said Bob Murphy, mayor of Lakewood, where track is being built now.

The campaign

As in Atlanta, a primary motivator for supporting the concept was traffic congestion, spurred by a flood of population growth.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Denver joins Atlanta among the top 10 most congested areas in the United States. On a recent Thursday, afternoon traffic snaked around freeway ramps headed toward Denver’s southern suburbs, reminiscent of traffic on Spaghetti Junction trying to push north onto I-85.

But unlike in Atlanta, by 2004 the Denver referendum advocates weren’t so interested in road widenings. It’s about road congestion, not roads, said Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“We said, look at what happened in Atlanta in the 1970s: They were the marvel of the entire country when they did Freeing the Freeways,” Clark said, referring to metro Atlanta highway expansion in the 1970s and 1980s. “But that land got exhausted, more cars came, and that created the giant congestion issue” — again.

John Hickenlooper, who was then mayor of Denver, became the face of the regional campaign — a crucial unifying force that has not yet surfaced for the Atlanta campaign. Hickenlooper echoes Clark’s sentiments. With rail, “you can add car after car,” he said. “Going forward, over the next 20 years, 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, it’s a much wiser investment.”

Metro Atlanta’s referendum will address the region’s “crying need for transit” by including mass transit projects, said Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, but the list being drawn up now has to be balanced with road projects for the referendum to pass in a region with so many drivers. A fierce debate is under way over what that balance should be.

According to officials from the RTD and other advocates for FasTracks, the decision to concentrate on mass transit stemmed from a feeling that Denver was farther behind in mass transit than in roads, and the fact that advocates had a transit referendum ready to go.

One of the $3.5 million campaign’s television ads showed Hickenlooper riding a swift train, as a narrator asked, “Why stay stuck in the past when you can move smoothly into the future?”

In interviews this month, Denver residents from ordinary voters to CEOs touted the environmental benefits of expanding transit. Hickenlooper, now governor of Colorado, displays a book on global warming for visitors in his lobby.

For all that, the campaign was far from a sure thing. In 1997, a transit expansion called “Guide the Ride” tanked with 58 percent of voters saying no. It was criticized as too vague.

A more specific 1999 referendum — to borrow funds for highway and rail projects — passed. For the FasTracks vote, they drew maps of the projects and named stations.

By the time of the FasTracks vote, those 1999 projects were headed to timely completion on budget, the advocates said. Light-rail trains from earlier initiatives were gaining ridership and fans.

At the voting booth in 2004, Jason Shorey, a 42-year-old steelworker from the western suburb of Arvada, was happy to join 58 percent of voters marking “yes,” just for his own personal use. “I think it’s great,” he said recently of FasTracks. “It’s going to get a lot better.”

The downsides

However, don’t ask Shorey to vote for such a measure again. Though none of the FasTracks-funded trains is operating yet, the program already has financial issues.

Some of FasTracks’ skeptics are newly minted, people who don’t hesitate to say they supported it in 2004.

FasTracks’ 2004 cost projections turned out to be $2 billion too rosy, and with current revenue, only part of the originally proposed spider of rail lines can be finished by the promised date of 2017. Unless voters approve an additional tax, big parts of the 122-mile rail expansion are likely 25 years behind schedule. Voters in the northern suburbs are furious.

And like any transportation project, FasTracks has found detractors in residents whose land was taken to make way for the project, or who suddenly found themselves neighbors to noisy or unsightly parts of it.

In addition, the program always had opposition from residents who think levying taxes to build trains is a bad idea for an area as spread-out and car-dependent as Denver. “A lot of the talk was about, how do you get those cowboys out of their pickups and onto transit,” Clark said.

The setbacks have FasTracks advocates mulling another tax hike vote, but their polling shows voters are not in the mood, so they had to put it off. And opponents such as libertarian-leaning radio personality Jon Caldara are emboldened by the financial troubles. Caldara got elected to the RTD board before the 1997 Guide the Ride vote, and is cited as one reason for its defeat.

“If you live on a rail line and you work on a rail line, congratulations, you just won the light-rail lotto,” Caldara said. “But still those are so few people, and it’s so very expensive.”

Eyes on the prize

Economic development advocates in Denver disagree. True, stations along the rail lines have been designed in tandem with local town redesign and rezoning, to spur transit-oriented growth (an issue for towns that now must wait decades for their stations). And a local real estate company, Your Castle Real Estate, found that along existing light-rail lines, property values had resisted the decline found elsewhere in the metro area. But improved transportation will provide a rising tide lifting boats across the region, advocates insist.

Case in point: DaVita Inc. A lot of factors played into DaVita’s decision to move its head office, and at least 300 new jobs so far, from El Segundo, Calif., to Denver, said CEO Kent Thiry. Yes, the company got up to $6 million in state and city tax breaks, but the No. 1 issue, Thiry said, was being able to attract and keep a quality workforce. Transportation was part of that.

In California, traffic stressed out employees and interfered with meeting schedules. Another plus for Denver: With reliable transportation to ferry employees across a metro area like FasTracks aims to do, “you do have a much greater pool from which to recruit,” he said.

A sizable transportation investment is critical to avert the region’s decline, referendum backers in metro Atlanta say. A national relocation expert brought here by the Metro Atlanta Chamber to make the case said in 2007 that companies are quietly turning away from the possibility of moving jobs here, because of traffic.

Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd, who sits on the small group that is drafting metro Atlanta’s project list this summer, listened soberly to representatives from Denver and other cities on lessons learned.

Floyd said afterward that it’s exciting to see a region that managed to get its tax passed and get projects rolling: “It’s kind of one of those things like, maybe we can make this work — maybe we can put all of this together and make it work.”

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DENVER'S ROAD TO RAIL

As a result of their mark on the ballot seven years ago, residents of the eight-county Denver Regional Transportation District are paying an extra 4 cents on every $10 purchase, and the vast “FasTracks” rail expansion is under way. Here’s how it happened:

1997: Voters tank “Guide the Ride,” a mass transit expansion tax. The rap: It’s too vague.

1999: Voters approve “T-REX,” a measure to borrow for some light-rail and highway expansion.

2004: Voters approve FasTracks, a mass transit expansion of more than 100 miles. Expected to cost $4.7 billion, funded by $13.7 billion in expected tax revenue over 30 years.

2010: Annual report says FasTracks is expected to cost $6.8 billion, and the 30-year tax revenue is likely $8 billion.

2011: For the third year in a row, the RTD put off asking voters to raise the FasTracks sales tax, fearing failure at the polls.

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THEIR REALITY VS. OUR THEORY

Regional leaders studied Denver’s vote on its FasTracks program as the 10-county metro Atlanta region prepares for its 2012 vote on a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation projects. Here’s a look at what the two proposals have in common and where they differ:

Similarities

-- Regional tax

-- Decision made by the voters

-- A specific list of projects

-- Funded by a sales tax increase

Differences

-- FasTracks tax is 0.4 percent; Atlanta tax would be 1 percent.

-- FasTracks is all mass transit; Atlanta’s plan is roads and transit.

-- FasTracks’ original timeline was 12 years, but now could add 25 years; Atlanta’s is 10 years.

-- Atlanta tax ends at 10 years; Denver’s continues as necessary to pay for operations.

Sources: Denver’s Regional Transportation District, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia House Bill 277

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Meet our reporter

Ariel Hart has covered transportation for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2005. She has written about traffic congestion, road safety, mass transit, the turn toward toll roads and the politics of transportation, including what lobbyists and vendors spend on transportation officials.

She grew up in Arizona, attended Bryn Mawr College and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Follow her on Twitter: @ajcTransport.