Swalm leads charge to audit Fastracks as RTD approves northwest hybrid plan

The Colorado Statesman

The Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday unanimously backed a request to begin the preliminary stages of an audit of the Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks expansion project in preparation for a likely ballot question asking metro-area voters to approve a sales tax increase to bail the project out of a more than $2 billion budget shortfall.

Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, requested the audit, concerned that RTD’s own estimates, claims and assumptions might be “vulnerable to yielding false or inaccurate results.”

“We need to get to the bottom of this,” said Swalm. “RTD has received billions in taxpayer funds, and we need to find out where that money has gone.”

Denver metro-area voters in 2004 backed a 0.4-percent sales tax increase to fund the 119 miles of new light rail, and were promised that the project would be completed by 2017. Since 2004, project costs have skyrocketed — the planned 41-mile northwest line from Westminster to Longmont alone jumped from $894 million to $1.7 billion. RTD says the cost of the entire FasTracks project has jumped from $4.7 billion in 2004, to a stunning $7.8 billion today.

The project isn’t expected to be completed until 2042 without voters approving another 0.4-percent sales tax increase. With the tax hike, the entire project can be completed by 2032, according to FasTracks officials.

The RTD board on Tuesday night backed a hybrid proposal for the northwest line that would complete that project in increments, with Bus Rapid Transit along the line to Longmont completed by 2020, and commuter rail north to Church Ranch Boulevard in Westminster completed by 2022. Those projections assume voters will approve a sales-tax increase.

Officials are “confident” that they could extend the rail line all the way to Longmont by 2032 with the sales tax increase. The rest of the transit plan would remain on its current schedule, according to RTD officials.

The board must now decide whether to send the sales tax increase to voters for the November ballot, as their proposal is completely dependent on the additional estimated $160 million per year.

“If the board decides next month not to pursue a sales tax election this year, then we’re back to the original FasTracks plan building up to Longmont, and then that’s going to be like 2042 before that’s ever done,” said Pauletta Tonilas, spokeswoman for the project.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the project and the likelihood of another ballot question to fund it, Swalm called for an audit. The Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday morning didn’t initiate an audit but simply approved beginning the process that could lead to conducting an audit. In June, the next time the committee meets, members will vote on whether to have State Auditor Dianne Ray conduct an audit of the entire FasTracks program itself.

Swalm is calling for the inquiry to answer several questions, including:

• Whether RTD’s original Major Investment Studies predetermined facts in creating a bias in favor of light rail over Bus Rapid Transit;

• Whether sales tax revenues grew by 6 percent per year since 2004, as was assumed in the original financial plan;

• Whether revenues were ever used for anything other than capital construction;

• What percent of commuter travel will FasTracks represent compared to other means of transportation;
• How will FasTracks relieve congestion; and

• What contracts have been awarded over $10,000, and how those contract beneficiaries might have contributed to the FasTracks election in 2004.

But Tonilas cautioned against a full audit of FasTracks, pointing out that audits are expensive, and that the project is already subjected to several internal, state and federal audits.

“We are probably one of the most reviewed and analyzed audited groups around,” she said. “These types of audits are not inexpensive, and they take a tremendous amount of resources.”

She suggested the costs might outweigh the benefits.

“Folks would have to think through what is the end result desired for the cost and the resources to get there,” Tonilas continued. “Is that the best use of public dollars?”

—Peter@coloradostatesman.com