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Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin October 23, 2014

Greenlight Pinellas opponents argue Denver light rail is a failure

No Tax For Tracks, the grassroots group opposing the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit initiative, says it has plenty of evidence light rail isn’t worth the cost. Just look at Denver, they say.

Spokesperson Barb Haselden presented a series of photos during a debate with Greenlight’s Kyle Parks at the Stetson University College of Law on Sept. 29 (starting in the video at 27:40). The images showed a nearly deserted transit station, empty rail cars and a parking lot with almost no cars.

"I went to Denver for a transportation conference; they opened their light rail line 16 months ago. … When I got out and walked up to the front door to the brand new transit hub, nobody was there," she said, clicking onto an image of glass doors.

"I walked in the door that you just saw, main concourse at 10:30 Friday morning, nobody was there." Empty staircases.

"Ticket windows: Nobody’s there. A few people waiting on a train." Ticket windows without buyers. About a half-dozen people waiting on a platform.

"I got on the train, I quickly turned to the right to take a picture, and then I turned to the left." A couple of passengers, then no passengers.

"But people say, well gee, maybe this is because it’s 10:30 and they had all gone to work," she said. "Here’s the Park-n-Ride lot. Empty."  

No Tax For Tracks is using this as proof that Greenlight Pinellas is a boondoggle, despite the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Greenlight boosters crying foul. The whole thing made PolitiFact Florida wonder, was her presentation truly worth a few thousand fares?

On the FasTracks

Haselden and No Tax For Tracks didn’t return our messages, but we figured out she attended the American Dream Conference from Sept. 19-21, 2014, sponsored by the American Dream Coalition, a vocal opponent of mass transit.

Speakers conducted presentations with titles like "Sustainable Suburban Development Can Defeat Social Engineering," "Stopping Wasteful Projects Through Citizen Advocacy" and "Fighting Southern Florida’s Seven-50 Plan," referring to a public-private urban planning initiative in southeast Florida.

The conference started with a tour on Sept. 19, including taking a train from downtown Denver’s Union Station to Golden on the region’s newest light rail line, the West line on the project called FasTracks.

The public began using it in April 2013. It’s the first light rail line in the transit expansion approved by voters in 2004. The plan instituted a new 4/10 of a percent sales tax to add six new rail lines and bus rapid transit to the four lines in service since October 1994.

The project was originally projected to cost $4.7 billion, but grew to more than $6 billion. These points are highlighted in a No Tax For Tracks video from the conference in which Natalie Menten, an elected board member for the Denver area’s Regional Transportation District and outspoken opponent of government spending, calls the entire project "a failure, from start to finish."

Menten says the RTD public relations department would say the project came in under budget and ahead of schedule, and that wasn’t true.

So we asked the district’s PR department. That’s not quite what they told us.

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Fare vs. fair

It should be noted that yes, the FasTracks project’s budget did increase significantly.

Several things occurred to (ahem) derail initial estimates. Pauletta Tonilas, senior public relations manager for the RTD, said some engineering and environmental solutions ended up being more complex than planned. There also was a spike in construction costs, as the prices for concrete, steel, diesel fuel, copper and the like went up.   

The Great Recession also disrupted the project, cutting into sales tax revenue after 2008. Another snag was a recent change by the Federal Railroad Administration requiring the use of bigger, stronger light rail cars on lines that moved along freight corridors, Tonilas said.

With some creative financing and planning, the RTD finished the first phase, the 12-mile West line, eight months ahead of the working schedule.

The West line averages about 14,000 trips per day -- that is, one person buying a ticket -- and should grow when other FasTracks lines open in 2016, Tonilas said. That accounts for about 17 percent of the 84,000 or so trips she said the entire light rail system gets per day, although that varies from month to month. The whole RTD system, including bus, rail and shuttle service, averages about 350,000 trips per day.

To put that in perspective, Denver’s light rail consistently ranks in the top 10 light rail systems in the country, in terms of ridership. San Francisco’s streetcars get some 220,000 trips per day and Charlotte gets about 16,000, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Tampa’s streetcar line nets somewhere around 700 trips per day.

Current projections for the 24-mile Greenlight Pinellas light rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater scheduled to open in 2024 estimate it will cost $1.87 billion to build, with about 17,000 riders per day by 2035.

Back to the negatives

Now, let’s get back to Haselden’s presentation, because there are some holes in it.

First, the empty concourse. Scott Reed, assistant general manager for RTD communications, told us that was not a light rail station. It’s the renovated Union Station bus concourse, an underground station with light rail platforms above it.

It’s still pretty empty, but that’s because ridership generally follows normal commuting times, Reed said. It’s no surprise the bus concourse and rail platforms were relatively empty at 10:30 on a Friday morning. Also, this was a westbound train headed to the suburbs in the morning, the opposite of normal commuting patterns.

Haselden said no one was at the Park-n-Ride lot, but there’s a good reason for that, too: That was a parking lot for the Pepsi Center, the arena where the city’s professional hockey and basketball teams play, Reed said. It wouldn’t normally be filled on a Friday morning. Union Station doesn’t have a Park-n-Ride lot, Reed said, because it’s downtown.

On at least one occasion, during an interview with Fox 13, Haselden was told the parking lot belonged to the arena, and the station said she had apologized.

Our ruling

No Tax For Tracks gave a presentation with photos they said prove the Denver light rail system has low ridership.

After examining the presentation and Denver’s light rail system, we found the opposite. Not only are the photos misrepresenting the city’s mass transit, but statistics show the Mile High city has one of the more successful systems in the country.

No Tax For Tracks may not approve of how rail is funded or operated, but using photos of one thing and saying it’s another nullifies the argument. We rate the statement False.

Correction, Oct. 24, 2014: The story has been changed to reflect the Tampa streetcar line averages about 700 trips per day. The story previously had a different number.

Our Sources

YouTube, "Stetson Law presents: Green Light Pinellas Debate," Sep 29, 2014

Stetson University College of Law, "Greenlight Pinellas debate includes community, Stetson students," Sept. 29, 2014

Denver NBC 9 News, "Transportation project more than a billion dollars over budget," May 18, 2007

CBS Denver 4 News, "Copper Thieves Target FasTracks Project," Jan. 6, 2012

CBS Denver 4 News, "FasTracks West Rail Line Ahead of Schedule," May 23, 2012

Denver Post, "New RTD board member eyes the agency with suspicion," Feb, 7, 2013

Regional Transportation District, "2012 High Level Measures Report," December 2013

CityLab, "Have U.S. Light Rail Systems Been Worth the Investment?," April 10, 2014

FiveThirtyEight, "How Your City’s Public Transit Stacks Up," July 31, 2014

Cato Institute, "Review of Greenlight Pinellas," Aug, 14, 2014

Facebook, No Tax For Tracks video, Sept. 23, 2014

National Journal, "How Denver Leaders Pulled Off a Public Transit Miracle," Oct. 1, 2014

Toronto Star, "How Denver’s mile-high ambition is a road map for Toronto transit," Oct. 2, 2014

Denver Business Journal, "RTD's light rail system is turning 20," Oct. 3, 2014

Bay News 9 / News 13, "Fact, fiction fly as Greenlight Pinellas transit debate hits stretch run,", Oct. 3, 2014

Fox 13 Tampa Bay, "A battle of images in Pinellas Greenlight campaign," Oct. 6, 2013

American Public Transportation Association, "Public Transportation Ridership Report: Fourth Quarter 2013," accessed Oct. 16, 2013

American Public Transportation Association, "Public Transportation Ridership Report: Second Quarter 2014," accessed Oct. 16, 2013

Regional Transportation District, "West rail line facts," accessed Oct. 17, 2014

American Dream Coalition, 2014 Preserving the American Dream conference presentations, accessed Oct. 17, 2014

Interview with Kevin Thurman, Connect Tampa Bay executive director, Oct. 14, 2014

Interview with Pauletta Tonilas, Regional Transportation District senior public relations manager, Oct. 16, 2014

Interview with Scott Reed, Regional Transportation District assistant general manager for communications, Oct. 17, 2014

Interview with Kyle Parks, Greenlight Pinellas spokesperson, Oct. 17, 2014

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