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Infrastructure in the News 9.27.16



Wall Street Journal: Transit Funding Is Set to Grow (full article follows Morning Transportation)

Many U.S. transit systems need costly work. Restoring them to a state of good repair would require at least $85.9 billion, according to a 2013 estimate by the Federal Transit Administration, the latest figure available.


The Hill: Clinton, Trump bring infrastructure hopes to White House

Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House next year, one thing is certain: Infrastructure spending is going to be on the agenda. Transportation advocates say they are more encouraged than ever, as both candidates have called for making massive investments in fixing the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.


Politico: Brush up on the candidates' infrastructure stances before the debate

DEBATE NIGHT: MT and the Pro Transportation team will be closely watching the presidential debate at Hofstra University tonight at 9 p.m. Tentative topics include “America's direction,” “achieving prosperity” and “securing America." In case transportation and infrastructure are mentioned, here's a refresher on the candidates’ positions.


The Guardian: Passengers in Uber's self-driving cars waived right to sue for injury or death

Anyone requesting an Uber ride in a 12-sq mile area in the center of Pittsburgh might now be randomly allocated a self-driving Ford Fusion rather than a human-operated vehicle.


TechCrunch: Uber is researching flying short-haul urban transportation

Short-haul flights in airborne taxis: It’s next-level alright, but is it next-level hype, or something city-dwellers can actually look forward to? Uber is betting it’s the latter, according to comments made by the company’s head of products to Recode’s Kara Swisher at a conference this past weekend.


Reuters: On the Majestic Maersk, mega-ship dreams obscure cloudy future for shipping

For Captain Dick S. Danielsen, the childhood dream has been to sail the world's biggest ships. The Danish seaman got his chance three years ago when he was asked to helm the Majestic Maersk, a mammoth, baby blue-painted vessel that at 400 meters (1,312 feet) is longer than a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.


The Hill: House panel tees up debate on water bill without Flint funding

House lawmakers on Monday teed up debate on a major waterways bill, which is expected to draw Democratic opposition for not including emergency funding for lead-stricken communities such as Flint, Mich., or a provision related to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.


Associated Press: New Car Mileage Estimates Drop as EPA Changes Test Formula

Highway gas mileage estimates for about one-third of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. will fall by one mile per gallon because the government has changed the way it calculates the numbers on the window sticker.


Associated Press: No diesels need apply: Electric cars rule at Paris show

Carmakers are finding the Paris auto show , held in a city whose mayor wants to ban diesels to reduce pollution, as a fine place to show off new zero-emission electric vehicles.


White House: Announcing Over $80 million in New Federal Investment and a Doubling of Participating Communities in the White House Smart Cities Initiative

With nearly two-thirds of Americans living in urban settings, many of our fundamental challenges—from climate change to equitable growth to improved health—will require our cities to be laboratories for innovation.


Recode: Why the tech industry should care about the next secretary of transportation

Donald Trump’s Twittering and Hillary Clinton’s email server aside, the 2016 election has been light on conversations about the future of tech. But political consultant Bradley Tusk wants the candidates to start talking about the intersection of technology, jobs and transportation.


Huffington Post: Human Infrastructure Needed for an Aging America

Both presidential candidates have called for infrastructure investments. The general idea is that this will create jobs while making America both more competitive in business and an overall better place to live.




Washington Post: New carpooling app matches riders and drivers — for free

Once upon a time — in other words, in an age before smartphones– this is how carpooling worked: You had some extra space in your car and you found some fellow travelers to fill it. You made friends. Sometimes they even chipped in a little money for gas.


WAMU 88.5: Can Taxis Compete With Uber? Overhaul Of D.C. Cabs On The Way     

Changes are coming to all of Washington’s taxicabs under sweeping new regulations overhauling the meter and payment systems used by the assortment of cab companies and independent drivers who account for some 7,500 taxis.


Washington Post: The D.C. region will pay a steep price for deferring maintenance on its roads and rails

Rock Creek Park roadways carry about 22,000 vehicles a day. The three-year shutdown of Beach Drive coincides with Metro’s SafeTrack initiative closing or limiting portions of rail service.


Wall Street Journal: Denver’s Transit System Makes Tracks (full article follows Morning Transportation)

Maintenance backlogs, budget shortfalls and breakdowns plague many of the U.S.’s aging transit systems. But here, where the plains meet the Rockies, Denver’s system is a rare success. Cleveland's undredged shipping channel threatens jobs, commerce, Ohio's senators say

A year has passed since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last dredged the Cuyahoga River shipping channel, and Ohio's two U.S. Senators on Monday called for an end to that "irresponsible" decision. Concerns for Alabama port as global shipping industry starts to sink

The average lifespan of a well-manufactured steel shipping container is thought to be about 12 to 15 years, during which time it will be transported to ports all across the world and loaded on to trains that will carry it the length and breadth of continents.


Seattle Times: Seattle to get lower speed limits

Lower speed limits, including 25 mph through downtown Seattle, passed the City Council on Monday, paving the way for signs to change in November.


Boston Globe: Advocates urge MBTA to offer late-night bus service

A transit advocacy group is calling on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to run eight overnight bus routes in the Boston area to compensate for the loss of late-night rail and bus service earlier this year.


Dallas News: Dallas leaders want DART subway before suburban service

Dallas city leaders are ramping up the pressure on Dallas Area Rapid Transit to focus on a second light rail line downtown before the long-delayed Cotton Belt rail line in the suburbs.


Press Herald: Poll shows strong voter support for transportation bonds

A majority of Maine voters favor issuing $100 million in bonds to improve transportation infrastructure, according to a new Portland Press Herald poll. About 66 percent of likely voters said they would vote yes on Question 6 on the November ballot. Only 20 percent said they would vote no and 13 percent said they were undecided.


CNY Central: A new, more creative attempt to solve infrastructure problems in Syracuse

There is a unique new way to take on infrastructure problems in Syracuse. On Monday, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner announced a new partnership with AT&T and the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool).



By Brianna Gurciullo and Jennifer Scholtes | 09/27/2016 05:40 AM EDT


With help from Annie Snider and Anthony Adragna

BIG DEBATE, LITTLE INFRASTRUCTURE TALK: Transportation geeks had high hopes that the transition into general election debates would mean more mention of real infrastructure investment plans, but Monday's first round sounded a lot like chatter from the primary squabbles. While Hillary Clinton didn't say a peep about transportation projects, Donald Trump delivered a new talking point: "We build roads, and they cost two and three and four times what they are supposed to cost," he said, bragging that the hotel he's constructing in the Old Post Office building near the White House is "under budget, ahead of schedule ... and that's what this country should be doing."

Fact check: In many cases, Trump's right about ballooning budgets for road projects. The famously over-cost Big Dig in Boston was supposed to come in around $2.6 billion and ended up totaling $14.6 billion after some two decades of work, the Cato Institute points out in a roundup it put together last year on federal overruns. Other remarkable examples the think tank cites: New York City's East Side Access, which grew from a projected cost of $4.3 billion to $10.8 billion; the San Francisco Bay Bridge, which was supposed to total $1.4 billion and came in at $6.3 billion; and the VA-Springfield Interchange, which was estimated to cost $241 million and ended up at $676 million.

Broken record: If Trump gets a nod for saying something new and true, he also gets some side eye for so continually regurgitating the same talking point that U.S. infrastructure is like "a third-world country" - a phrase first made famous by Vice President Joe Biden, who said in 2014 that "if I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you must think: I must be in some third-world country."

Memory lane: Trump's latest debate-night version of the old crumbling-infrastructure diatribe: "You know, it's one thing to have $20 trillion in debt and our roads are good, and our bridges are good, and everything is in great shape. ... Our airports are like from a third-world country. ... And you come in from Dubai and Qatar ... you come in from China, you see these incredible airports." Déjà vu, a la his May victory speech in Indiana.

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TICKING THROUGH TRANSPO BILLS: Lawmakers are scheduled to be in session just four more days before taking a six-week break to close out campaign season. So both chambers have been pushing through bunches of noncontroversial bills in recent days. Today, the House plans to pass a measure (H.R. 5065) that would force DHS to better inform air carriers and TSA personnel of guidelines for passengers who have breast milk, formula, juice or breastfeeding equipment. Caretakers are already allowed to have those liquids in their carry-on luggage, but the lawmakers who introduced the legislation say TSA screeners at some airports have made travelers throw them away at checkpoints.

Done deal: The lower chamber passed a bill Monday that would make demands of the Coast Guard's acquisitions team, including barring the service from buying large drones during certain fiscal years. As our Jennifer Scholtes reported for Pros: "The measure (H.R. 5978) would require the Coast Guard's head of acquisitions to inform the commandant about cost trade-offs, schedule changes and performance issues. ... It would demand that the officer ensure the commandant's opinions are 'strongly considered' during the acquisitions process. ... And it would order the Coast Guard to work with the Department of Transportation to create a land-based navigation system as a backup for its current GPS technology."

Also off to the upper chamber: The House passed a bill (H.R. 5943) on Monday that would stipulate how long transit security grant funding remains available. Under the bill, recipients would have 55 months to use grants for transit systems improvements. All other such grant funding would expire after 36 months. As of now, FEMA can determine and extend the performance period for those grants.

WRDA HEADS TO HOUSE FLOOR WITHOUT FLINT AID: The House Rules Committee voted Monday to send the lower chamber's WRDA bill to the floor later this week without an aid package for Flint, Mich. As Pro Energy's Annie Snider reported, the House bill only includes Army Corps of Engineers project authorizations and policy reforms. The bill that the Senate passed deals with municipal drinking-water and wastewater programs, and it includes aid for Flint and other cities handling lead-contaminated water. Republican leaders say a conference committee should address funding for Flint, Annie reports.

AIRLINE EMISSIONS DEAL TALKS TAKE OFF: Representatives from more than 200 countries gather starting today in Montreal for the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization's 39th meeting in hopes of reaching a final agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry. As talks kick off, the International Council on Clean Transportation today released a report concluding that annual fuel efficiency improvements can be more than doubled if 45 discrete new technologies are embraced. Fuel consumption by new aircraft could also be cut 25 percent in 2024 and 40 percent in 2034 by using new technologies that improve engine efficiency, reduce aerodynamic drag and trim aircraft empty weight, according to the report.

REMEMBERING 'THE KING': Tributes to Arnold Palmer have poured in from the general aviation industry following news of the 87-year-old's death Sunday. A longtime pilot known for flying to golf tournaments, Palmer received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the FAA in 2010. The Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pa., Palmer's hometown, is named after him.

"The truth is, that for more than 50 years, using business airplanes is the single most productive thing I have done," Palmer once said in a 2009 advertisement for the National Business Aviation Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. "It's given me the opportunity to compete more effectively in golf and in business, and it's enabled me to do both from a place not served by the airlines."

- Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association: "We all know what a tremendous golfer Arnold Palmer was, but he was also immensely respected as an aviator. He understood the value of general aviation and was a vocal advocate for personal and business flying. As a longtime supporter of AOPA, and a charter member of the AOPA Foundation President's Council, he took a leading role in promoting the safety and utility of general aviation. I count myself lucky to have known him. He will be deeply missed by the GA community."

- Martin Hiller, president of the National Air Transportation Association: "The aviation community has lost a friend and great ambassador. Mr. Palmer loved every aspect of flying, including all the people in the aviation business community critical to ensuring every flight begins with a safe airplane."

- Ed Kilkeary Sr., former NATA board member and Palmer's friend: "I had the opportunity to fly Mr. Palmer last week and there was no doubt where he would be sitting, up front helping me pilot the aircraft. There was not a nicer, more inclusive person in the world than Arnold Palmer. Although he had accomplished so much, he was always himself. He didn't even realize he's Arnold Palmer."

- Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association: "While Arnold's appeal is universal, he holds a truly special place in the hearts of everyone in aviation. His passion for flying, his professionalism with over 19,000 hours in the left seat, and his tireless advocacy for our industry, combined to make him our great champion. To honor his legacy, we will dedicate our upcoming convention to his memory."

FTA AWARDS $5 MILLION TO TRIBAL TRANSIT PROJECTS: The FTA's Tribal Transit program has awarded $5 million in grants to 34 tribes in 12 states, the agency announced Monday. The 35 winning transit projects aim to bring tribal citizens to jobs, health care, retail and education services. The agency received 44 applications totaling $8.3 million in requested funding.

MT MAILBAG I: Getting America to Work, a coalition of transit agencies and advocacy groups, want transportation and infrastructure to be a major legislative focus next year as both presidential candidates have promised to spend big if elected. Coalition members wrote in letters to leaders of the House Transportation and Senate Banking committees on Monday that passage of the FAST Act was only a first step.

"While some may view the passage of a long-term bill as an opportunity to focus on other areas of policy and a chance to let the regulatory side of federal transportation laws work their will, we strongly believe that future legislative action in 2017 can provide a vehicle to continue to increase the federal government's investment in transportation," they wrote.

MT MAILBAG II: Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the top Democrat on House Oversight's Transportation and Public Assets Subcommittee, wants the Surface Transportation Board to step in and help resolve a problem in her state of Illinois. Duckworth wrote in a letter to the STB late last week that Canadian Pacific Railway "unexpectedly reneged" on an agreement with the Illinois Tollway Authority to sell land for the Elgin-O'Hare Western Access project.

"Although CP has been involved in the design and development process of EOWA for almost a decade, CP has only recently expressed their concern with this project's impacts on their rail operations," Duckworth wrote.

TRANSPORTATION UNION LEADER DIES AT 102: Al Chesser, the former president of the United Transportation Union, died Sunday at age 102. Chesser also served as the union's national legislative director. "This union gave me the opportunity to have hundreds of friends in the United States House and Senate," Chesser said in a 1999 speech. "Our many friends during this time wrote into law several legislative bills that improved the safety and working conditions of our members." UTU merged with the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association to become the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.


- Snake wrapped around armrest halts Japanese "bullet" train. The Associated Press.

- New carpooling app matches riders and drivers - for free. The Washington Post.

- Wildstein: Port commissioner knew about Bridgegate plan. POLITICO New Jersey.

- Denver's transit system makes tracks. The Wall Street Journal.

- The car-emissions sleuth who's costing Chrysler $5 billion. Bloomberg.

- Can taxis compete with Uber? Overhaul of D.C. cabs on the way. WAMU 88.5.

- Tesla and supplier Hoerbiger settle in court over Falcon Wing doors. Reuters.

THE COUNTDOWN: DOT appropriations run out in 4 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 367 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 41 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 1,467 days.


9 a.m. - The Chemical Transportation Advisory Committee begins three days of meetings. U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 2703 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.

10 a.m. - The Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee holds a hearing on threats since Sept. 11, 2001. SD-342, Dirksen Senate Office Building.

10 a.m. - The Cato Institute hosts a conference on the risks and rewards of drones. Hayek Auditorium, Cato Institute, 1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

Did we miss an event? Let MT know at

To view online:

Stories from POLITICO Pro

House passes Coast Guard acquisitions bill Back

By Jennifer Scholtes | 09/26/2016 08:41 PM EDT

The House passed a bill this afternoon laying out new procedures for the Coast Guard's acquisitions team, including barring the service from buying large drones during certain fiscal years.

The measure (H.R. 5978), which passed by unanimous consent, would require the Coast Guard's head of acquisitions to inform the commandant about cost trade-offs, schedule changes and performance issues. And it would demand that the officer ensure the commandant's opinions are "strongly considered" during the acquisitions process.

The bill would prohibit the Coast Guard from awarding contracts for designing large drones in the fiscal years that Congress is doling out money for construction of Offshore Patrol Cutters - the vessels the service uses as a "capability bridge" between its largest ships and the Fast Response Cutters that patrol close to shore.

The measure stipulates that the service could only buy drones if they were acquired or used by the Defense Department, unless the Coast Guard can get drones for cheaper through other means.

The legislation would require the vice commandant to serve as a representative to the government buyers of major acquisition programs by helping them assess cost trade-offs and technical feasibility. It would require the Coast Guard to report to Congress on the use of multiyear contracting for Fast Response Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters.

And it would order the Coast Guard to work with the Department of Transportation to create a land-based navigation system as a backup for its current GPS technology.


House to take up WRDA bill as Flint aid remains sticking point Back

By Annie Snider | 09/26/2016 07:59 PM EDT

The House will take up its version of the Water Resources Development Act later this week, but will not debate the Senate's aid package for Flint, Mich.

The Obama administration called on Congress to "quickly pass targeted funding to support Flint" either in WRDA "or another vehicle" but stopped short of threatening to veto the House bill in a statement of administration policy released tonight.

The House Rules Committee voted along party lines today to send the bill (H.R. 5303) to the floor under a structured rule, and rejected a Democratic attempt to make a Flint amendment in order. The committee could approve additional amendments for consideration with a supplementary rule later this week as it continues to sort through roughly 100 amendments.

The House measure covers just project authorizations and policy reforms for the Army Corps of Engineers, whereas a Senate-passed WRDA bill also addresses municipal drinking water and wastewater programs, as well as a $220 million aid package for Flint and other cities dealing with lead-contaminated drinking water.

Flint also remains the key sticking point in negotiations over a short-term funding measure before government funding runs out Sept. 30.

GOP leaders say Flint should be addressed in a WRDA conference committee after the House passes its bill.

But Flint aid is not the only point of contention in the House's WRDA bill. House Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) came out against the bill after Republicans removed a Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund mandatory spending provision that passed committee.


Wildstein: Port commissioner knew about Bridgegate plan Back

By Ryan Hutchins | 09/26/2016 05:03 PM EDT

NEWARK - William "Pat" Schuber, a member of the board that controls the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was told of the George Washington Bridge lane closures before they occurred, according to the admitted planner of the scheme.

David Wildstein, who was the second-highest-ranking New Jersey official at the agency, said in federal court on Monday that he met with Schuber - a former Republican assemblyman and Bergen County executive - before launching the lane closures and told him the traffic changes were part of a plan targeting Mark Sokolich, Democratic mayor of Fort Lee. At the time, Sokolich was refusing to endorse Gov. Chris Christie's reelection bid.

Wildstein and Schuber met for breakfast on Aug. 30, 2013, at the River Edge Diner. That was just 10 days before the closures began, and Wildstein said he'd already done much of the planning.

He said he informed Schuber that, "in a couple weeks, there's going to be a lot of traffic in Fort Lee."

"I viewed Mr. Schuber as a loyal member of Governor Christie's team," Wildstein said on the stand in U.S. District Court.

Wildstein said his boss at the time, deputy executive director Bill Baroni, asked him to meet with Schuber because he was likely to receive complaints about their plans from officials and residents in Bergen County.

He told him "that the instructions came from the governor's office, and that this was aimed at Mayor Sokolich," Wildstein said. "Mr. Schuber said he understood."

An attorney for Schuber, Salvatore Alfano of Bloomfield, said Wildstein fabricated his testimony.

"We categorically deny that we had any conversation with him about the George Washington Bridge lane closures," Alfano said.

Schuber previously told a state legislative committee in Trenton that he had nothing to do with the scheme.

"I just want to state very emphatically that I have had no involvement in, nor prior knowledge of the decision which led to the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, and I would never condone the use of governmental powers to exact political retribution," he said, testifying under oath. "Wrongdoers should be held accountable for their misconduct."

Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, were indicted last May on charges of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations. Wildstein has already pleaded guilty and is now testifying against them.

Outside the courtroom here in Newark, state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg - a Democrat who served as a co-chair of the committee that investigated the lane closures - said Schuber should resign if what Wildstein said is true. She noted she had voted to confirm his appointment to the Port Authority board and had previously been happy with his service.

She said the testimony was shocking, noting she wrote to Schuber not long after the lane closures and he called to say "he was going to look into it."

"Every time I think I can't be surprised, another one happens," Weinberg said. "But this is personal at this point."



Transit Funding Is Set to Grow

Wall Street Journal

Many U.S. transit systems need costly work. Restoring them to a state of good repair would require at least $85.9 billion, according to a 2013 estimate by the Federal Transit Administration, the latest figure available.

Some help is on the way. President Barack Obama signed a five-year, $305 billion highway and transit bill in 2015 that provides about $49 billion for transit, increasing such funding about 18% over those years, not accounting for inflation, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The law increases funding for the Federal Transportation Administration’s State of Good Repair program for transit to about $2.5 billion annually from about $2.1 billion.

Many public transit systems built in the early 20th century are struggling with outdated or deteriorated infrastructure, as are several created more recently.

At San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system, which began operations in 1972 and handles 129 million trips a year, officials want voters to approve a $3.5 billion bond measure in November, with most of that to be spent on maintenance. Even if the measure passes, officials believe it isn’t quite enough to cover all the improvements and repairs needed.

BART has underfunded capital projects for decades. This March, after a major service snafu, a BART spokesman responded to an angry customer on Twitter that “much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.”

In Washington, D.C., the Metro, which opened in 1976 as the nation’s showcase for the future of mass transit, has experienced a series of service interruptions that has sent ridership plummeting.

The system’s trains and buses handled 321 million rides in fiscal 2016, 6% fewer than the year before, according to a recent document from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Safety concerns over malfunctioning electric cables prompted Metro officials to shut down the entire rail network for a day in March, leaving tens of thousands of commuters scrambling to find other ways to get to work. The transit agency has launched an emergency effort to fix electric cables and make other repairs.

The funding crisis has critics calling on governments to cut their losses on public transit while supporters seek a new infusion of cash.

The track record of many public rail lines, with years of spending too little on maintenance and operation, has been “nothing short of abysmal,” said Wendell Cox, a transit planner based in the St. Louis area who opposes more federal subsidies for mass transit. Spending money to add more buses would make more sense, he said.

More cities and states are turning to dedicated local funding for transit. More than 30 jurisdictions have transit funding measures on the ballots this fall, an increase over previous years, said Richard White, acting president of the American Public Transportation Association, the transit agencies’ trade group.

APTA says almost $200 billion in public transit funding across the country will be decided in the November voting.

Younger, expanding transit systems in cities such as Denver, Dallas and Salt Lake City may be holding up today, but they, too, will be challenged in 20 or 30 years as equipment ages, Mr. White said.


Denver’s Transit System Makes Tracks

Wall Street Journal

DENVER—Maintenance backlogs, budget shortfalls and breakdowns plague many of the U.S.’s aging transit systems. But here, where the plains meet the Rockies, Denver’s system is a rare success.

Created in 1969, the Regional Transportation District operated for years as a modest bus service, and in the 1990s it added a few rail lines. But in 2004, voters in the eight-county region approved an additional 0.4% sales tax to expand the train network, called FasTracks. That new funding dramatically boosted a stream of local tax money already going to transit.

RTD relies on public-private partnerships for much of its construction and maintenance, and its management takes a fiscally conservative approach toward expansion: It only builds what it can afford to operate and maintain for the long term, according toHeather Copp, RTD’s chief financial officer.

The financial problems plaguing transit agencies in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere reinforce the conservatism. “We don’t want to be like them,” she said.

The system opened two new rail lines this year—one to the city’s airport and one to northern suburbs—both operated under contract by private company Denver Transit Partners LLC. Two more lines are scheduled to open by the end of 2016.

Financially, RTD is “basically doing everything right,” said Jeff Brown, who researches public-transit system finances and is chairman of Florida State University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Still, in 2013 the RTD spent the most in capital costs per passenger ride among the nation’s 15 largest transit agencies, due to the cost of its buildout. And it isn’t immune from economic concerns.

With a fiscal 2015 operating budget of $466.7 million, the Denver system recently lowered its revenue growth projections in coming years to 5% from 8%, which likely will limit future expansion. According to RTD, sales-tax revenue has been less than expected, in part because big-ticket items like cars and appliances haven’t been selling as anticipated.

Budget shortfalls after the recession already forced it to postpone plans to extend rail lines to Boulder, about 25 miles from downtown Denver, and Longmont, roughly 30 miles from Denver.

A half-dozen riders on the RTD’s light-rail system on a recent weekday said they were excited about the expansions, but said most people still drive because that often is less expensive given low gasoline prices. A full-fare, one-way local trip on RTD costs $2.60, while a longer, so-called regional ride is $4.50.

Some critics note that because most of the area’s 2.9 million residents don’t use public transit, the system has done little to reduce congestion. In many European cities, 60,000 to 80,000 people are within a 15-minute walk of a transit stop, but sprawling Denver has only about 3,000 people within the same radius, according toEdward Ziegler, retired law professor at the University of Denver.

The RTD system never will have the concentration of riders needed to make it financially sustainable even with federal subsidies and tax revenue, said Mr. Ziegler, an expert on land use. “Denver, in my view, is a case of ‘let’s pretend,’” he said.

RTD officials believe the expansion will draw new riders, bringing in added revenue to help expand and maintain the system.

Jeff Wright, a 46-year-old marketing manager who lives in Lakewood, west of downtown Denver, said he bought a house near a train station so he could ride to his office in Denver, avoiding traffic. “It’s still cheaper to drive, but this is a lot less frustrating,” he said one afternoon while heading to the train.

The agency’s Ms. Copp said the district realized long ago what many other transit agencies now are learning: “The federal government is not going to save our bacon.”

Still, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation provided more than $1 billion for the FasTracks expansion. But private-sector investment and management has been pivotal for RTD, according toRobert Puentes, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation, which promotes public transit.

Aaron Epstein, chief executive of Denver Transit Partners, a private company owned by units of Fluor Corp., John Laing PLC and  Lloyds Banking Group PLC, said the investors have been pleased so far. He declined to say how much profit they expect to make.

The system must pay back hundreds of millions of dollars, with interest, to the partners, which purchased federally backed private-activity bonds to initially fund construction of new lines. It also must pay the partners for managing and operating the rail lines under a contract that runs until 2044.

During the recession that ended in 2009, sales tax revenue plummeted while construction costs soared, posing significant challenges for the RTD. That prompted the agency to postpone some projects.

The Federal Transportation Administration’s 2014 profile of RTD showed about 71% of $863 million in capital funds—money used for expansion, upgrades and equipment—expended that year came from local sources, including private investment. About 29.1% came from the federal government while only 0.2% came from the state.

By comparison, San Francisco’s BART system spent only $522.5 million on capital projects for the same period, with 37% coming from local sources, 15% from the federal government and 28% from the state of California. BART, the nation’s 10th-largest transit system, began operations in the early 1970s.

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, the Metro system has been hurt by falling ridership, service interruptions and funding shortfalls at the agency that runs it.