Monday, April 8, 2013

Financing Denver RTD's FasTracks Plan

In the early 2000s, The Regional Transportation District (RTD) of the greater Denver area developed a very robust and ambitious plan to construct and operate more than 100 additional miles of commuter and light rail service throughout the region by 2017. Funding for what RTD calls FasTracks was supported by a 2004 voter-approved regional sales tax measure that dedicates 4 cents to every dollar spent to the project. This allowed the project to begin, however, due to an unexpected downturn in the economy and other unplanned financial constraints, RTD realized an additional sales tax increase was imperative. 

Even after voter polling suggested the ballot would be approved, the RTD Board decided the “timing was wrong” to take the measure to the voters and decided against it. Yet, the District devised several interesting and creating finance plans to pay for major components of the FastTracks project. The first plan involves a Public-Private Partnership with a team of private firms to design, build, operate, and maintain several of the rail lines. This is fairly rare in the American transit industry, but allows RTD to essentially make payments over time to construct and operate quality transit service. This also minimizes their reliance on Federal transit funding from gas taxes for capital project, which is very limited and continue to be in question in the State of Colorado (Puentes and Prince). RTD event went as far as to recommend an adjustment to the plan by approving the decision to build and operate BRT instead of rail along one of the corridors to save money. More recently, the RTD board approved a series of rather unique funding strategies to support continuation of the project by identifying 8 different ways to reallocate internal funding, request additional stakeholder financial support, and selling RTD-owned property, just to name a few. RTD will not let anything get in their way to deliver what they promised more than 10 years ago, and should be commended for such innovative and responsible funding strategies to get there. 


1. Cotey, Angela. "Denver RTD pursues funding options for FasTracks." Web. <>. Progressive Railroading. March 2011.

2. Whaley, Monte. "RTD board nixes FasTracks tax vote this year." Web. <>. Denver Post. April 2012. 

3. Regional Transportation District. FasTracks. Web. <> 

4. Puentes, R. and R. Prince. (2003). Fueling Transportation Finance: A Primer on the Gas Tax. Brookings Institution. (pp. 12-13) 

5. Whaley, Monte. "RTD approves funding plan for Denver's FasTracks." Web. <>


  1. Are you aware of any other cities that have resorted to a Regional Transportation District (RTD) Board? As you stated in your post it seems as though the greater Denver area is unique. I'm also curious whether a shift to a public-private approach would be more economically viable in the long-term? Great post!

  2. Brett, I don't think RTD is that different from other regional transit service districts (e.g. Tri-Met), but Tom can correct me if I'm wrong. As far as I know, the board doesn't have any power beyond transit policy. I am still amazed they got the 4% at the time they did.

  3. Yes, Joe, you are correct in that the RTD structure is pretty similar to most other transit agencies, including TriMet. The unique part of this project is their way of financing it. Typically, capital projects are subsidized up to about 80% by the FTA and the reminder from a local match (or RTD in this case). Once a transit line is built, the transit agency (like RTD) owns, operates, and maintains all the service and infrastructure, and pays for all of it too. What makes this project unique is that RTD is basically contracting the entire thing out (design, build, operate, and maintain) and simply paying the private firm in smaller increments, which allows them to minimize their dependence on FTA funding, but it also might be more expensive in the long run (think paying interest on a home mortgage).


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