Big Issues at Last Town Hall of the 2012 Session
We held our last town hall meeting of the 2012 session on Saturday, April 28, and attendees were treated to discussions of some very big issues facing us at this point in time. The first topic up for the 40 or more attendees was the RTD FasTracks mass transit project, along with its Northwest Rail (NWR) component that would eventually connect Longmont and Denver through Boulder.
RTD Board of Directors members Lee Kemp (Chair) and John Tayer (First Vice Chair) were on hand, as was RTD's Assistant Manager of Communications Scott Reed. Reed led the crowd through a presentation about highlights and challenges of the FasTracks project to date, and the highlights include developments that people will be able to use within the next several years.
Lee Kemp (left) and John Tayer of the RTD Board of Directors talk about FasTracks at Saturday's town hall meeting.
The FasTracks project currently has at least 50 miles of new rail line under construction or under contract, while the West Line from Denver to Golden is 91% complete and should be open in 2013.. The central hub for the project will be at Denver Union Station in downtown Denver, and the project there is 55% complete. Construction of managed lanes for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along U.S. 36 will begin this summer, and ground has been broken for the rail line to Denver International Airport.
On the other hand, elements of the NWR proposal remain challenging for both RTD and many members of the public. For starters, the most recent cost estimates have increased by hundreds of millions of dollars over earlier projections. According to an RTD document, the reasons for the increase include a request for RTD to pay the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad for operating time slots up front, the need for additional right-of-way, and new costs for environmental mitigation and utility relocations. The large increase made RTD consider NWR options, including the possibility of not going forward with NWR and relying on BRT for the 36/119 corridor.
On top of that, the cost of raw materials such as concrete and steel increased after the initial 2004 FasTracks ballot measure, while tax revenues plummeted along with the recent recession. RTD considered asking for a tax increase to accelerate completion of the project in 2012, but the Board recently voted 11-1 against doing so, with uncertainty over the proper course of action on NWR among the reasons.
Naturally, Saturday's attendees had plenty of questions for the RTD contingent about issues such as the NWR cost, the possibility of changing plans, and options such as using other rail technologies. Read John Fryar's story printed in the Longmont Times-Call and Daily Camera for more, and discussions regarding NWR and FasTracks will certainly continue to be important to our region as we move forward.
After the RTD segment, I had the chance to bring up some equally big state issues. For starters, we recently worked on the $19 billion "Long Bill" (HB 12-1335), or our annual budget bill. Thanks to moderately better economic performance, our recent revenue forecasts have been favorable and we've been able to avoid some of the cuts that characterized our last several budgets.
Although the FY 2012-13 budget hasn't been signed into law yet, the Senate was able to pass a version that would restore the Senior Homestead property tax exemption, increase funding for services for the developmentally disabled, increase Old Age Pension funding and invest in job-creating programs within the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
I didn't vote for the FY 2011-12 budget because it continued our pattern of cutting education funding, but I was able to vote for the 2012-13 budget, as did 94 out of 100 legislators. This year's budget included an increase in total-dollar funding for K-12 education, although it will remain basically flat for per-pupil funding due to increased enrollment, and I can't feel great about what happened this year because our overall funding still remains about a billion dollars below the original intent of Amendment 23. Also, the 2012-13 budget included cuts to higher education, which is a problem as we try to build an educated and skilled workforce for our economy of the future.
On Saturday, we also talked about HB-1238, a bill designed to make sure that Colorado's young students are able to read at grade level. Earlier versions of the bill were problematic to me and others, partially because they didn't identify adequate sources of funding for literacy programs, and partially due to the emphasis on retaining students who couldn't read at grade level for another year at the same grade level. After extended negotiations between many stakeholders, we were able to pass an amended and (in my opinion) improved bill through the State Affairs committee last week.
The meeting included discussion of SB-002, which would allow civil unions for same-sex couples. The bill has passed the Senate but still faces a tough challenge getting through the House. We also talked about bills with environmental components such as HB-1315 (revamping and renaming the Governor's Energy Office), and HB-1136 (a prohibition on public entities selling vehicle fuels such as compressed natural gas). All three bills in this paragraph are still being debated in the 2012 legislative session, which ends May 9.
All things considered, I thought it was a nice ending to our series of monthly town hall meetings. Attendance was generally quite good throughout the session, and we held lively discussions on the key topics of the day. Thanks to everyone who participated, and hopefully we'll do this again starting in January!