|RTD's Tax History
An immense tax proposal such as Guide the Ride contained many elements consistent with the opposition culture. Everything from RTD's rocky tax history to Guide the Ride's troubled campaign suffered from, and indeed fueled, the opposition culture.
RTD has had a long and controversial history in acquiring funding for transit investments. In 1980, RTD's initial foray into light rail was defeated. (The $1 billion light rail plan, which would have increased RTD's sales tax from 0.6 cent to 1.25 cent, received only 46 percent of the vote.)
Next came RTD's 1994 effort at a TABOR override election, which lost, but was successful one year later with 53 percent of voters. The recent $6 billion light rail, bus and HOV plan dropped to an all-time low in support, gaining only 42 percent of the vote. The size of the defeat, 60,000 votes and 16 percentage points, was a historic rejection.
An analysis of voter patterns shows Adams County as the metro area's most tax- resistant, having consistently voted against statewide and regional tax initiatives and having handed RTD four loses. Less than a quarter of Adams County voters supported the latest effort due to the widely shared perception that there was nothing in it for them. Most surprising in this latest election was opposition in Boulder, normally supportive of transit due to its environmental orientation. With the exception of Denver, which usually supports RTD, albeit minimally, Douglas County gave this initiative its highest level of support (47%). Douglas County's support is a reflection of its astounding residential and traffic growth.
While the overall political environment did not favor a regional tax initiative for transit, many metro opinion leaders believed it was an essential investment and worked hard for its passage. Voters told pollsters for several years that growth was their main concern, and that they believed transit was a more critical priority than additional highways. Also, they were fascinated with light rail. The Guide the Ride (GTR) campaign was well financed with direct mail, and television and radio advertisements. It began high in the polls, but sank rapidly after Labor Day. What explains this reversal of fortune? The generally hostile environment to major tax increases coincided with the particular weaknesses of RTD's Guide the Ride plan and campaign.
DIA on Wheels
Guide the Ride suffered from its size and vagueness. Sizing major public projects may be the most difficult task for public managers and elected leaders. There is a natural tension among the two sides of a large public policy proposal planners, issue advocates and interest groups who want comprehensive, integrated and state-of-the-art proposals, and voters who resist grand plans and high taxes.
Unfortunately for RTD, Denver International Airport continues to frame many debates concerning large public expenditures. The size of Guide the Ride led to comparisons with DIA, where mismanagement and cost overruns escalated a promised $3 billion project into $5 billion plus. The size of the RTD project and its tax impact was highlighted by a raucous debate among promoters, the Board and opponents over the cost of the project, which ranged from $6 billion to $16 billion.
RTD's 66 percent tax increase from 0.6 to 1.0 cent was driven by the desire to build out an aggressive program of light rail and other transit investments. But a survey conducted for RTD in 1994 testing tax tolerance levels among voters indicated that 0.8 cent was the highest level the public would support.
Even among supporters, the size of the proposal became an inviting target. Those who didn't oppose light rail outright preferred an incremental approach, in which one or two light rail corridors with the best cost/benefit ratios would be built rather than trying to complete a grand plan in one proposal. And as critics quickly pointed out, even a $6 billion to $16 billion comprehensive program was unable to provide benefits to all areas. Several corridors, especially north and west, were offered undefined benefits to be determined by future studies.
Political tacticians often develop ballot initiatives much like legislation is developed, in which benefits are added to please various interest groups. Voters often see the effort as a pay-off of special interests and not as enhancing their interests. The irony was that the effort to provide a comprehensive program with benefits for the entire region was criticized for providing too few local benefits all the while possessing massive cost and tax liabilities.
RTD - Rails To Denver
While the long-standing rivalry between Denver and its suburbs is not unique in large- and mid-sized cities, the Guide the Ride proposal exacerbated the problem. It described the major expenditure, which was for construction of light rail, as a hub system centered in Denver and housed in a new mega-facility at Union Station. It was a concept Denver, RTD and Guide the Ride advocates were proud to feature. But the Denver hub and spoke system was easy to criticize as not providing access for all suburbs and suburb-to-suburbcommuters.
The Light Rail Emphasis
The public has a fascination with light rail, but a plan or a campaign that emphasizes rail rapidly gains critics. Rail dramatically increases proposal costs. Opponents of light rail have many years of data concerning its poor cost/benefit ratios, and possibly most importantly, any area that does not receive rail believes it is not receiving its fair share.
The GTR rail corridors tilted south and west, and were immediately criticized by Adams and Boulder county officials as a tax transfer for the benefit of Denver and the southern suburbs. They overwhelmingly voted their localized interests.
A Divided Board and Two Campaigns
Unity among the governing board members proposing a tax initiative is extremely important for public confidence. RTD Board disagreements over the proposal were deep and long-standing. In fact, the light rail majority was so thin that, depending on who attended meetings, the majority dissolved. But the Board divisions were more than differences of personalities or individual political agendas. They reflected long-standing opposition to the scope and cost of the plan, and political forces within various counties opposed to the plan.
GTR boosters' solution to the Board conflict was to create a separate campaign committee that focused solely on promoting the proposal. They argued the November vote concerned the proposal, not any conflicts within the Board or between the Board and campaign committee. Unfortunately for the campaign, RTD Board members who were supporters intended on being involved and initiated their own campaign. Meanwhile, Board opponents of GTR waged vigorous efforts to derail the vote. A two-campaign stance would have been difficult under any circumstance, it was impossible in this election.
Ironically, it was the Board campaign and not the boosters that gained the most publicity and took some of the most popular stances. Orchestrating an inexpensive debate-formatted campaign, attempting to limit campaign contributions and insisting on publishing cost figures all were controversial among booster groups. But the tactics generally comported with the public's view that campaigns are too expensive, too noisy, too driven by interested parties and seldom honest about the ultimate cost of a project.
It was the opponents who made the best use of Board divisions and the two- campaign strategy. They gained a forum to present their views, and each RTD meeting became an event that furthered either the image of Board division or a specific goal that hampered the booster campaign. Examples that derailed the booster campaign include limitations on contributions, arguments over the binding aspects of the plan's priorities on future Board construction decisions, and inexact cost estimates.
The booster campaign strategy assumed that dominating the paid media near election day would simply overwhelm the under-financed opponents. But no amount of campaign spending, especially a late media campaign, could restore public confidence in the plan or its implementation. Proponents lost the media battle for control of the message by mid-September, even before the advertising began. Seldom does advertising reverse a downtrend of a tax proposal. The two-campaign strategy ultimately contributed to the voters lack of trust in the campaign message and the view that the plan was too vague. Voters heard different versions of the plan, the cost and the potential benefits. When in doubt, people vote "no." In addition, opponents began to attract late funds for advertising, which probably contributed to the depth of the defeat.
A third of voters in a November post-election poll confirmed that the most damaging aspects of the plan and campaign were the project's perceived vagueness and changing cost estimates (33%). Closely following as a reason for opposition was the size of the project and its impact on taxes (31%). Board and campaign conflicts represented 15 percent of negative comments. The final 20 percent of opposition came from concerns that light rail wouldn't accomplish goals (i.e., traffic reduction and environmental improvement), and the program's perceived failure to address voters' localized concerns.
Voter rejection was a blend of problems regarding the vagueness of the plan, its cost, and fairness to individual areas of the region. This was not a pleasant vote for most people. They wanted congestion relief, but lost faith that Guide the Ride was the answer. The plan's vulnerability and the campaign's mixed messages were congruent with the major elements of the culture of opposition and impossible to overcome.
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