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As Polis pushes, RTD leaders want dialogue on long-delayed Longmont train

The governor says he wants the promised Longmont train in four years, but RTD says it will take at least 30 years, if it happens at all. Now what?

DENVER — Some Regional Transportation District (RTD) leadership pushed back after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis wrote to the agency’s CEO last week, reminding her of the district’s obligation to voters to build a train to Boulder and Longmont.

Polis’ letter came days after RTD’s new CEO Debra Johnson made news suggesting the cash-strapped agency might need to seek alternatives for the train promised to voters who approved a sales tax increase in 2004.

“I write to remind you of RTD’s responsibility of fulfilling their obligations to the taxpayers of the District and urgently request you begin the planning necessary to complete the construction of the corridor by 2025,” Polis wrote in the Jan. 22 letter to Johnson.

The 2025 deadline proposed by Polis is much sooner than current estimates from RTD, which have put the train’s completion out to 2040 or even 2050.

“That’s an interesting deadline,” said RTD Board Director Shontel Lewis, reacting to the governor’s letter. “I don’t know if I can say it’s possible.”

“It wasn’t an invitation to a conversation to collectively come up with a solution or an alternative or to put all the facts and figures on the table and go from there,” she said of Polis’ letter.

The Longmont train has been a frustrating topic for RTD for years, as local leaders representing the regions that would benefit from the train have criticized its slow rollout.

Since 2004, RTD has pointed to many challenges in completing the FasTracks initiative. The recession of 2008 hurt the agency financially. Some of the projects in the initiative ran into cost overruns and the estimated price tag for the northwest train skyrocketed from half a billion dollars early on to more than $1.5 billion today.

The agency has been setting aside funds each year to save for the train, but only has about 8 percent of the cost banked.

“I think that’s unfair to the people of Longmont, unfair to the people of Boulder to keep pushing it out and to avoid having a hard conversation,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who represents parts of Denver on RTD’s board, has long argued the district needs to have a difficult conversation with stakeholders up north about the train's progress. As RTD navigates a financial crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it nearly had to layoff drivers and operators to make ends meet.

She was among several board members who had suggested the agency stop saving for the Longmont train and use that funding to temporarily offset budget challenges.

“I don’t think it’s a conversation about stepping away from (the train),” she said. “I think the conversation needs to be a needs-assessment. What do the folks in Longmont and Boulder need and how might we be able to offer that collaboratively.”

RELATED: New RTD boss questions wisdom of long-promised Boulder train

RELATED: RTD approves budget with layoffs, salary cuts

Johnson, months into the job, seemed open to that approach.

“Specific to the Northwest Rail Line, I am keenly aware of the commitment made and the fact that there is no viable funding to complete the project at this juncture,” she wrote in a statement responding to the letter from Polis. “That being said, I am open to having an open and transparent dialogue with community partners on exploring ideas on serving our customers in the northwest area.”

When asked how he expects the agency, currently cash-strapped, to fund the train and have it completed by his ambitious deadline, Polis suggested the agency use funding from recent stimulus packages.

“We invite the new leadership of RTD to be creative in considering different options to fulfill their promise to the voters, including identifying how to optimize return on investment with cost-effective delivery methods, selling off non-productive assets, and restructuring debt,” Polis spokesman Conor Cahill wrote in a statement.

“We would welcome a solutions-oriented conversation on how RTD plans to fulfill their binding legal obligation to the voters - instead of saying they don’t have to — and acknowledging that there’s a problem would be a good start.”

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