HUDSON: A REAL MOVER FOR TRANSPORTATION IN THE STATE
The Jack McCroskey(s) I like to remember
The Colorado Statesman
Do I contradict myself?
Over the past 35 years I’ve known several Jack McCroskeys, some that I will miss and others best forgotten. When I reported to the Colorado Legislature in January of 1979, I found myself seated in the back corner of the House chamber where only two seats comprised the last row. This suited me as I had spent my years in school seeking safe haven at the back of the classroom where I could better disguise my inattention. My seatmate was Representative Jack McCroskey of South Denver. He asked me whom I had pissed off? Although an unexpected winner of the Democratic primary in Northwest Denver, I wasn’t aware I had been singled out for exile. Jack made it clear that our Democratic leadership doesn’t “…like me one damn bit.” I shrugged off his suspicions as we weren’t blocked into our seats like most of our colleagues and were just a few short steps from the rest rooms and a pre-cellular bank of wall phones.
A professor of economics at Denver University, Jack was a fiscal conservative who frequently sided with Republicans on budget issues. Otherwise, he was about as liberal a Democrat as you could hope to find. Jack traveled to the Capitol each day by bus, making him a singular exception in the Legislature. It was rumored he no longer drove because of a horrific accident for which he was responsible during his drinking years. Now clean and sober, he never explained to me his aversion to autos. Neither did I inquire. He was, however, a keen advocate on behalf of the recently created Regional Transportation District. The appointed board of directors were behaving badly and squandering taxpayer dollars. Jack recruited me in support of legislation that would restructure the board. RTD’s lobbyist Roger Walton successfully routed our bill to a killing committee. This proved a huge mistake.
Jack McCroskey decided the only solution would be to place an initiative on the statewide ballot establishing an elected board of directors. Clarke Watson, Michael Henry of CHUN and I joined him in this crusade. Riding buses all day long, Jack collected more signatures than any of us. At a time when you could not pay circulators for signatures and were required to rely on volunteers we secured 150,000 signatures and voters overwhelming ousted the appointed board in November. Two years later Jack gave up his legislative seat to run for the RTD board. His priority was to clean up bus service and bring efficiency and reliability to RTD’s operations. Serving as chairman of the board, he hired Ed Colby, a bus guy, to restructure service. Next he insisted that every bus be made accessible to wheelchair riders. No other transit system in the country had attempted this. Long before the American with Disabilities Act Jack demonstrated that it was not too expensive, too disruptive of schedules or the lifts too unreliable to serve the handicapped that necessarily rely on public transit.
Over the following decade transit systems throughout the country followed RTD’s lead. And the ADA would confirm the wisdom of his perseverance. Only then did Jack turn his attention to introducing light rail transit. In competition with large Eastern cities Denver couldn’t win “New Start” funds, so he hatched a plan to force the hand of the FTA. Denver would fund its initial light rail link entirely with local moneys, then RTD would pledge that investment against federal matching funds for an extension. His original plan was to build a line from downtown to Stapleton airfield. When the African-American community bellowed that this was environmental racism he reconfigured the project to run from Five Points to the Gates plant at I-25 and Santa Fe. Nicknamed the Marrakech Express, it didn’t appear it would serve anyone. Surprisingly, Auraria campus students found it cheaper than parking downtown and ridership forecasts were exceeded. Just as Jack predicted the FTA funded the Santa Fe line to Littleton and allowed RTD to pledge the moneys it already had expended as the local share.
In the meantime one of his sons, who had long battled schizophrenia, committed suicide and another was prosecuted and imprisoned on drug charges. Jack became increasingly irascible, sacking first Colby and then his successor, Peter Cipolla, who successfully secured the light rail funds from Washington, when they sought generous compensation agreements from the board. He could not accept the fact that these were buccaneer managers who knew, like school superintendents and city managers, that their expected tenure would be no more than six or eight years and they consequently expected to make the most of them — particularly when they had performed well. Jack began to see conspiracies everywhere. He lent his support to term limits and began to rail against mayors, governors and the chamber of commerce. A man who had evidenced uncommon political acuity was transformed into a crank. His voters abandoned him and Jack became the grouch who cornered you at public meetings with whispered accusations of fraud, collusion and corruption. In recent years he had difficulty finding an audience for any of this.
Colorado is indebted, however, to the visionary who orchestrated a transit future for the metropolitan region. I’m not sure there was anyone else available who could have successfully launched light rail. Jack made enough enemies in the years since then that many today try to minimize his role. But Jack was right about many things. Without an elected board, we probably never would have gotten started. Without buying our way into the New Start game, the FTA would likely have continued to ignore what they saw as an upstart cow town. That’s the Jack McCroskey I like to remember. Hopefully we can bury his demons with him.
Columnist Miller Hudson served in the legislature from 1979-1983.