Future of Northwest Rail Line Under Spotlight

It’s been 16 years since local voters were promised a new passenger rail to Boulder and Longmont by the Regional Transportation District. The issue is back in the news with Colorado Governor Jared Polis weighing in on the delay.

Last week Boulder City Council received an update on how the coronavirus has impacted RTD and changes that might affect residents.

Lynn Gussinger, who represents Boulder and Broomfield counties on the RTD Board of Directors, told Boulder City Council last week that one of the most important things the agency has done recently is bringing in a new general manager.

“In November Deborah Johnson came in. She had been at Washington Metro and DC and at the major metros transit systems in San Francisco and LA… and she really is bringing a breath of fresh air.”

However, Johnson was a target of a letter from Governor Jared Polis last week after reports surfaced that she questioned the wisdom of further expanding the Northwest Rail Line, also known as the B-Line, through Boulder County.
Johnson commented on the future of the line at an event organized by Boulder Transportation Connections on January 13th.

“While we’re fixated on rail because it’s sexy and everybody wants to ride the iron horse, we have to keep in mind what might be more viable as we look at communities holistically and discern what might be the most mobility option that’s readily available for that demographic, for that customer segment. So one thing that I do know for certain right now is that we don’t have the funding for it,” she said.

Johnson went on to say that pursuing federal grant money for the project wasn’t viable because there won’t be enough riders.

“So recognizing that there is a desire of this community, which I can empathize with, as we step back and have to look at what is, as opposed to what was when this first came to fruition back in 2004, is this the most viable option that would serve the needs of a vast majority of people today?”

In response to Johnson’s comments, Governor Polis and local community leaders urged RTD to prioritize completing the line through Boulder County.

“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. Please keep this priority in mind, particularly as the district evaluates how to spend significant additional dollars that have been unexpectedly provided directly to RTD via federal stimulus payments,” wrote Polis.

Since COVID struck, RTD has received $232 million from the federal government which allowed them to keep employees last year. The agency is scheduled to receive another $200 million in 2021. At the same time, Gussinger told Boulder City Council that overnight in March of last year, RTD lost 75% of its ridership because buses don’t allow for social distancing. She says some of that ridership has come back but it’s still down 60%.

“There are still many issues ahead. One of which is who will be coming back? When will they be coming back? How do we bring them back?”

Governor Polis wrote to Johnson about RTD’s statutory and ethical duty to voters to complete FasTracks and said he’s committed to ensuring that during his tenure as Governor, promises to taxpayers are kept.

The B-Line currently connects Westminster to Union Station by commuter rail, but the 2004 tax increase approved by voters and accompanying FasTrack’s Transit plan, dictates that the line extend through Broomfield, Louisville, Boulder, Gunbarrel, and Longmont using existing BNSF railway tracks.

Erik Davidson, another RTD Commissioner, told Boulder City Council that the agency needs to work on how it collaborates.

“I’ve heard many times…that RTD developed a reputation of being an agency of “no.” We’re a very large transit area, 2300 square miles, three million people, we can’t do it all from one agency. We have to be partnering with our local cities and counties,” said Davidson.

RTD announced earlier this month that routes GS, 205, and 225 would be suspended, partially discontinued, or reduced.