Colorado Needs New Policies to Provide Funding for Bike, Bus, Rail and Ped Travel

August 17, 2016 | Will Toor

During the past two years, multiple legislative proposals and ballot issues have been proposed that would increase transportation funding in Colorado. None of these proposals was adopted—but all of them would have focused the vast majority of new revenue on expanding highways across the state.

A new report released by the CoPIRG Foundation and Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) makes the case that transportation funding needs to be allocated to other modes of travel besides highways. It contends that Colorado would benefit from investing $1 billion per year in transit, biking, and pedestrian infrastructure and services in order to meet the demands and challenges of the state’s shifting demographics and growing population. This investment could come from reallocating a portion of existing federal, state and local transportation funding (which totals over $4 billion per year just in the Denver metro area) and as part of any new transportation funding plan.

The report argues that local and state government have been underinvesting in these modes of transportation for decades. For example, there are 6,000 miles of missing sidewalks and 8,600 miles of deteriorating sidewalks in Colorado’s cities and towns, making walking dangerous and difficult for many residents. Transit service is inconsistent, with relatively good service in some communities, virtually no transit in others, and very little transit service connecting different parts of the state. This reflects the fact that the state provides almost no funding for public transit, paying for only about one percent of the costs of transit in Colorado. For comparison across the nation, the average state support for transit is 26 percent of the cost of operating transit systems.

There is no silver bullet solution to adequately fund multimodal transportation in Colorado, but the report identifies a whole range of policies that together could meet these needs:

  • Ensure that existing state transportation funding is flexible and can be used to address the particular transportation needs of a corridor, rather than being arbitrarily limited to only one mode of transportation. Currently, state law restricts the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) use of the vast majority of state transportation funding to highway and road projects. In 2013, the legislature removed this restriction from cities and counties by enacting SB 13-048, a policy proposed by SWEEP. The legislature should give the same flexibility to CDOT.
  • Require that toll revenues be used to support transit service in the same corridor. Increasingly, the state has turned to toll lanes as both a way to finance highway expansion and manage congestion in those lanes by charging a higher toll during congested periods. In order to make sure that these projects serve citizens in all income brackets and support Colorado’s multimodal needs, the state should require that a portion of toll revenues be invested in public transit in these corridors.
  • The state and every regional transportation planning partner should conduct the same level of analysis as they do for roads and highways to identify funding gaps for transit, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure. These agencies currently develop detailed projections of funding needs for both maintenance and expansion of highways. These plans don’t just show what can be done with existing funding, they also identify funding gaps. This level of analysis should be fully extended to transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
  • New state funding sources for transportation should be designed to provide Coloradans with options that meet their broader  transportation needs.  While the state is not solely responsible for transportation investment – local and federal funding play a big role – it is a crucial partner for implementing good public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in addition to highways.
  • Colorado’s Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) should allocate their federal transportation funding to support the broad range of multimodal needs. MPOs such as the Denver Regional Council of Governments are responsible for allocating much of the federal transportation funding that comes to the state, Many of these federal funding streams are flexible dollars that can be used for all modes of transportation. While some MPOs have used this flexibility, others spend the vast majority of flexible funds on roadway projects. MPOs should more robustly fund transit, bike and pedestrian projects that are needed in their regions.
  • Cities and counties should adequately fund sidewalks, safe crossings, and local bicycle infrastructure in addition to partnering with transit agencies to provide adequate public transit to their residents. Local funds, typically generated from sales taxes, property taxes and fees on development, are an important source of transportation dollars in Colorado.

Will Toor serves as the Director of the Transportation Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. He previously was a Boulder County Commissioner; Mayor of Boulder, Colorado; and chairman of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. He played a strong role in the development of the Boulder community transit network, EcoPass unlimited access transit pass, ClimateSmart Loan program and EnergySmart program.