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Longmont City Council Considers Commuter Rail Options

The Colorado city has stated that “all options are currently on the table” to complete the long-awaited transit service from Boulder County. Officials claim the rail line proposed on the 2004 ballot is taking too long.

(TNS) — When it comes down to what Longmont, Colo., might do to prod the Regional Transportation District to start funding and developing the long-delayed completion of a Northwest Rail line through Broomfield and Boulder County into Longmont, "all options are currently on the table," Mayor Brian Bagley says.

Bagley did not specifically detail any of those options, including what Longmont might do if the City Council decides the RTD is taking too long to get going on the Northwest Rail project, or if the agency puts off its currently estimated 2050 date or seeks to abandon the passenger rail project entirely and pursue other transit improvements into and through Boulder County.

Longmont City Council members reportedly discussed those options during a closed-to-the-public Feb. 23 executive session but have not publicly disclosed what conclusions they may have informally reached during that meeting.

Bagley did say in a Thursday interview, however, that while no decisions were made in the executive session, Longmont city officials continue to be upset at what he said is the RTD's "failure to follow through on" on the November 2004 FasTracks ballot proposal that contemplated the rail connection between Denver Union Station and Longmont, and the 0.4 percent sales tax voters approved for FasTracks projects throughout the transit district. The transit agency has proceeded with several of its other FasTracks lines since that election but has "not provided Longmont its fair share of FasTracks, specifically Northwest Rail," Bagley said.

Bagley said that while he could not currently list what options council members discussed with city staff at last month's executive session, he said that for council to continue to have any trust and confidence in the RTD, the agency needs to begin "treating Longmont fairly" including a commitment to start building out the passenger rail line that now ends in Westminster and was eventually to extend through Broomfield, Louisville, Boulder, Gunbarrel and Longmont — in part, using existing BNSF Railway right-of-way and tracks through a yet-to-be reached agreement between the transit agency and the railroad company.

"All options will be difficult and some would require some type of action by the Legislature and approval by the voters," Bagley said, although he added that there were no decisions or discussions in the closed meeting about Longmont pulling out of the RTD entirely.

Longmont Councilman Tim Waters and Councilwoman Marcia Martin also did not detail the Feb. 23 executive options council discussed on Feb. 23, in separate emails to the Times-Call last week.

But Waters said, "Based on my understanding of the language on which residents voted in the 2004 ballot question, the options available to Boulder County municipalities are limited with respect to altering obligations for servicing debt created by FasTracks."

Pauletta Tonilas, RTD's assistant general manager for communications, said in a Friday email that the transit agency can issue up to about $3.48 billion in voter-authorized debt for FasTrack-related project expenses and has used $2.78 billion from that authorization.

Waters, who has declared his candidacy for mayor in next November's city election, suggested in his Thursday email that Longmont, in addition to other Boulder County municipalities, could sue RTD "for some kind of relief," such as trying to get a court-ordered return of some percentage of sales taxes collected since 2005 or discontinuing the collection of the sales tax dedicated to FasTracks."

"While the likelihood of success of litigation to produce either of these outcomes is small, this option needs to remain on the table for Longmont's City Council, other Boulder County municipalities, and residents of these municipalities who voted for FasTracks in 2004 and want to consider filing a class action lawsuit," he said.

Councilwoman Marcia Martin said in a Thursday email that "Longmont can't unilaterally exit the district or escape our share of the debt it has already incurred. This is true even though we have not received anything like our share of the value provided."

"What I wonder is if we could negotiate a partial withdrawal by having RTD cease providing local transit services to Longmont and agree to divert all our future RTD tax to the NW Corridor train and station," Martin wrote. "We could lobby for our representatives (in the Colorado Legislature) to introduce a bill codifying the arrangement if necessary. Possibly other corridor cities would join us in lobbying for the bill."

Martin said that under such an arrangement, "Longmont would enter into a contractual public private partnership for local transit, funded by fares, business subscriptions, and the city's existing fare box subsidy of such services as the free rides on buses that operate only on lines within Longmont's city limits."

"Of course the existing service would have to have a sunset period of a year or two to give us time to stand up the replacement," she said.

Waters said one option that "we need to keep on the table is legislative relief. That is, working with state legislators representing Boulder County to amend state statues to allow municipalities that comprise RTD to withdraw from the Regional Transportation District.

"The probabilities of legislative relief, I believe, are also remote inasmuch as the financial obligations of the municipalities that would remain in the district would be substantially increased," Waters said. "The strongest case against legislative relief is the language in the 2004 ballot question which offered no guarantees or timelines for delivering promised commuter rail to member municipalities."

State Reps. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont; Tracey Bernett, a Democrat who lives south of Longmont; and Judy Amabile, D- Boulder, said in a joint Friday emailed statement: "The RTD NorthWest passenger rail service project has been an understandable source of frustration for us and our constituents. Not only has the project not yet been delivered, but it is in its nascent stages with no clear path forward leaving many taxpayers angered and disheartened after paying for the project for years."

McCormick, Bernett and Amabile said, "As first-year lawmakers at the State Capitol, we have been in constant contact with our communities and key stakeholders, listening to a broad group of individuals and groups that are directly involved in advocating for rail service to our districts, and will continue to engage as these efforts progress. While this is a complex problem, we have hope that RTD's new leadership under Debra Johnson, the transit agency's CEO and general manager, "will bring change and come up with a robust response to our state's changing transit needs and priorities. We'll continue to monitor developments and any federal or state policies that may impact rail service for our constituents."

State Rep. Edie Hooton, D- Boulder, who was re-elected to her Colorado House seat in November, said in an Thursday email: "I know there is quite a lot of dissatisfaction or anger within Boulder County over not having Northwest Rail, especially since our voters gave such strong support to the FasTracks ballot measure in 2004.

"The major sticking point for Northwest Rail is financial, and we more than likely can't speed the project up without some infusion of funding or other adjustments, plus we know RTD is going through financial challenges. As a state official, I couldn't guarantee state funding for this project while our Department of Transportation has unmet needs of its own," Hooton said.

"I have spoken with many local residents and officials at most levels of government, but have not heard of actual plans to consider leaving RTD over the lack of the rail project." Hooton said. "I think it would be a bad idea to consider leaving at this time, when we know the Biden administration and Congress are discussing a hopefully near-term infrastructure bill or package that could benefit transit in Colorado."

Castle Rock had to get the Legislature to enact a law allowing residents of that town to vote in 2005 to withdraw from the RTD, and such a measure would apparently also be required before Longmont and other communities along the Northwest Rail corridor could put any similar proposal before their voters.

"Also, it wouldn't be an easy process to leave RTD, even if we did pass a bill and a ballot measure," Hooton said. "RTD has substantial debt because of FasTracks, and Boulder County would still be obligated to help pay down the bonds. Meanwhile, we might not be considered for future RTD projects while we would be helping to pay off infrastructure elsewhere in the district."

Hooton said she knows Gov. Jared Polis "wants progress on Northwest Rail, and while I can't speak for him, I suspect he might have a tough time supporting a bill to leave RTD."

From 2005 through 2020, FasTracks taxes collected in Boulder County totaled $269.4 million, including about $67.2 million collected in Longmont and about $129.8 million in Boulder, according to Longmont Chief Financial Officer Jim Golden

State Sen. Sonia Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat who lives south of Longmont and represents an eastern Boulder County Senate district, said in a Friday email that she agrees with Gov. Polis "and many others who say that a promise has been broken to the taxpayers of Boulder County, who voted on a regional transportation service in 2004."

Jaquez said county taxpayers have little to show for the millions they have paid into FasTracks.

"One way to speed up the project is to think creatively about partners to bring to the table to assist with funding," Jaquez Lewis said. "The new Biden administration is committed to increasing public transportation and we need it. If we can get folks to their jobs economically then we can build a stronger economy back. Let's look at an Amtrak partnership where RTD is the operational partner to get the 'B' line from Denver through Louisville, Boulder and up to Longmont."

Jaquez Lewis also said, "RTD needs to come up with new sources of revenue. The other ideas of increasing affordable housing on or near land owned or leased by RTD and lifting restrictions on the amount of parking required for transit lines are good ideas. At the same time, RTD needs to be much more transparent with its expenses and needs to continue to streamline its operational budget. The mismanagement in previous years cannot ever happen again. Maybe, the RTD Board should become a more professional board and not by-election. Professional boards are the norm in other states."

"The legislature is looking at these issues in both the Senate and the House transportation committees," she said. "We need to look at new ways to fund public transportation and individual and commercial transportation that is powered with a combination of sustainable energy and less reliance on fossil fuels. The Boulder County delegation has discussed the RTD situation and the urgency to provide a regional rail system that our voters approved and have been paying for. We will continue to make this issue a priority."

Longmont Councilwoman Joan Peck has been the city's lead person in working on RTD-related issue, including a pending proposal to provide an interim level of peak-hour commuter service along the Northwest Rail FasTracks corridor until improvements and a related agreement with BNSF might be completed.

However, Peck, who's also the council's non-voting liaison to the city's Transportation Advisory Board, declined in a Friday email to answer the Times-Call's questions about and what the city can do or may do or plans to do about the uncompleted RTD Northwest Rail project.

City Attorney Eugene Mei "would be the person to answer these legal questions," Peck said.

Mei said in a Friday email that he had "no comment since most of the responses you seek involve confidential legal advice that I am not at liberty to disclose."

Council members Aren Rodriguez, Polly Christensen and Susie Hidalgo-Fahring could not be reached for their comments about possible options.

The RTD staff presented its board of directors with a special Feb. 9 study-session update on the history and status of the Northwest Rail project, and Johnson said she expected to return with recommendations for possible board consideration within 60 days after conclusion of that study session. Tonilas, said Johnson and the agency staff are in the process of developing those recommendations they will bring to the board next month.

"We await the recommendations from RTD," Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill said in a Friday email.

RTD Board Member Lynn Guissinger, who represents District O, including much of Boulder County and a small portion of Longmont, said in a Friday email that the agency's staff's proposal is expected to return to the board with an update of a 2011 design study and possibly also an update of a previous environmental evaluation.

"Now is the time for this design work to be done, because we have potential partners" in the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission and Amtrak for passenger train service in the Interstate 25 corridor between Pueblo and Fort Collins that could include a stretch of rail line along the Northwest Rail corridor, Guissinger said. She said those possibilities "could help access federal funding and build out the NW rail corridor. I would like to see RTD take a leadership position with these partners."

Guissinger said she specifically would like to see the RTD state its support for the Northwest Rail corridor to be the corridor chosen in any possible project by Front Range Passenger Rail or Amtrak; and for the RTD board to vote to authorize spending money from an agency savings account "to authorize FISA money to update this design study" and look at the Peak Period Rail proposal — one in which morning and evening commuter hours rail trips would be the initial service offerings on the Northwest Rail corridor.

"It's important to complete the design study so we all agree on current ridership and cost numbers, as well as to gain an understanding of other impacts on the corridor. The process needs to be transparent and completed in collaboration with the Northwest Mayors and Commissioners Coalition, our local governments and our customers and stakeholders in the Northwest corridor and the district," Guissinger said.

"The feedback process has been started, and I applaud CEO Johnson's collaborative emphasis on this," Guissinger said.

Erik Davidson, a Broomfield resident whose RTD Board District I extends through eastern Boulder County and includes most of Longmont, said in a Friday email that he is "grateful to CEO & General Manager Debra Johnson for taking a fresh look at the B Line, which is the currently operating line between Denver and Westminster and is to be the southern point of Northwest Rail into Broomfield and Boulder County.

"I look forward to reviewing her proposed next steps within 60 days from our February 9 study session," Davidson said.

He said that to date, the RTD has spent $5.65 billion on FasTracks capital projects and that the latest estimated cost to complete four currently unfunded FasTracks projects, ranges from $2.1 billion to $2.4 billion in 2018 dollars. Davidson said the previously estimated cost of providing "peak service" morning and evening passenger trains between Westminster and Longmont is $710 million to $800 million but that was "a conservative number" calculated in 2019.

"There are some questions that need to be answered to arrive at a more accurate cost estimate. Within RTD, I am advocating for policies and efforts to answer the largest of those questions, such as pursuing updated design work. Within RTD and the community, I am advocating for pursuing accurate cost estimates in partnership with our communities and doing so in a transparent manner," Davidson said.He said, "I am a strong believer that RTD can take a leadership role identifying and driving any partnership opportunities that could accelerate the development of the B Line" and its northern extension into Boulder County.

"One thing RTD can do is establish and state a clear position that any partnership should select the B Line as the corridor to develop. RTD should also explore opportunities to identify new funding sources that may become available. This is certainly one area where collaboration with our leaders in local, state, and federal government can work together," Davidson said.

Longmont Councilman Waters said he thought the "most viable option is a political one. This means the Boulder County municipalities wanting to hold RTD accountable for completing the Northwest Corridor must coalesce around the development and implementation of a strategy that makes failure to deliver commuter rail politically unbearable.

"Now is the time, in collaboration with other willing Boulder County municipalities, to coalesce around an exquisitely designed political strategy. We need to capitalize on the concerns Governor Polis and Congressman (Joe) Neguse have publicly expressed," Waters said in his Thursday email.

"We need to enlist other members of Colorado's Congressional delegation in this cause. We need to court private sector investor/capital interests. We also need to prepare to compete for federal funding when, or if, an infrastructure bill is passed by the current Congress. While we position ourselves to compete for additional RTD, state, private sector and federal funding, we, Boulder County municipalities, need to bring the kind of political pressure to bear on RTD board members and their new CEO that makes Northwest Rail the first thing they think about when they wake up in the morning and the last thing they think about when their heads hit the pillow at night," Waters said.

"We understand the frustration," the RTD's Tonilas said in a Friday interview. "But it comes down to the money."

(c)2021 the Daily Times-Call (Longmont, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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