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The Denver Post

OK, we choked the joke - now how do we get around this town?

November 30, 1997
Section: PERSPECTIVE
Page: G-02
   Hans Bjordahl

The stunning inadequacy of Denver's excuse for a mass transit system comes most clearly into focus after you visit a city that has actually bothered to build one. In Chicago, it makes more sense to zip around on the elevated trains than to get in your car and battle perpetual rush-hour traffic. Visit Washington D.C., arguably the rankest urban armpit on the Eastern Seaboard, and you'll get downtown in no time on its fast and surprisingly clean subway. Seattle's regular, convenient and well-traveled buses shuttle residents through a series of spacious, subterranean stations under downtown. You don't need to be in New York, London, Paris or San Francisco to justify a credible transit system - Portland, Ore., is tackling an ambitious lig ht rail plan to back its commitment to intelligent growth. Having taken your tour of transit done right, fly back to DIA and grab your bus to Boulder. The next one leaves in 58 minutes. One-way cost: $8. Transit time: 90 minutes. If it's snowing: three days.

Though the recent electoral tussle over the future of mass transit in the Denver area has catalyzed much debate, one point of consensus has emerged: RTD is a joke. In most mass transit systems, getting from point A to point B entails going to your nearest stop or station and waiting for the next bus or train to come along. In Denver, it typically entails a level a planning similar to that required for the Normandy invasion and almost as much transit time. Throw in an inch or two of snow (in Colorado, we get that sometimes), and the buses are as gridlocked as the cars that surround them. The fact that most passing RTD buses are about as crowded as a men's sensitivity seminar on Super Bowl Sunday is testament to the fact of that most commuter s have long since cast their vote on the Random Timing District.

The options for change presented earlier this month via RTD's Guide the Ride initiative were less than savory. Guide the Ride proposed to transform RTD from a joke into a great big joke by building an extensive light rail network in the south metro area, and what could only be specified as "mystery transit" in the north. Costs were about a zillion dollars. The opposition mounted a campaign best described as "Choke the Joke," which maintained that the best solution to our mass transit problems was to take our Reviled Transit Debacle out behind the barn and simply shoot it in the head.

Guide the Ride was expected to best Choke the Joke by a fair margin, but made some crucial errors in judgment. The first was to forward spokespeople for the initiative who were, by all indications, deceased. Bland bureaucrats spouted bland platitudes about "regional planning" rather than describe the system's benefits in real terms. Members of Choke the Joke, led by RTD board member and Independence Institute foot soldier Jon Caldara, bludgeoned clueless Guide the Ride proponents with thei r own statistics, celebrated their easy victory against One World Transit with a few scotch-and-tonics at Croc's, then drove home.

So that's settled: Caldara gets a gold star for his Independence Institute training exercise, RTD has been shown up as an organization of bureaucratic incompetents, and metro residents have vented their dissatisfaction. But guess what? RTD is still a joke, and now promises to be a joke well into the next millennium.

The question that no one seems prepared to answer is "now what?" Pressed for alternatives to RTD beyond "it sucks," Caldara has suggested more mini-buses like Boulder's regular "Skip" and "Hop" shuttles. But of course. Expect Cherry Creek to soon debut its very own mini-bus route ("The Hip"), followed closely by Highlands Ranch ("The Yup"). Then our transit ills will largely be solved, at least in the eyes of the people who matter. Commuters, don't fret - under the comprehensive Caldara plan , you're going to get your very own bike path in Lakewood.

Guide the Ride may have been demolished with cause, but that doesn't mean that Denver's gridlock is now going to magically disappear at the hands of the "transit fairies." Denver's long-standing aspiration is to be a "first-class city," and a credible mass transit system is key to such status. In the wake of Guide the Ride, we can resign ourselves to becoming L.A. Lite, or immediately get to work on a better proposal, one that is loaded with specifics, exudes efficiency, and is communicated b y someone with an actual pulse. If that means shooting RTD in the head and starting over, so be it - provided we start over right away. Until then, we'll just be sitting in traffic, railing in futility against the steadily mounting gridlock.

Hans Bjordahl is editor of the Internet publication Zone Interactive.



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