To Untangle Its Traffic Mess, Colorado Can’t Just Build More Lanes

Public transit, local needs, and biking and walking infrastructure crucial

April 9, 2018 | Will Toor

The last time that Colorado raised the gas tax was in 1991, when a gallon of regular gasoline cost just over a buck. Since then, the gas tax rate has stayed flat at 18 cents per gallon, while the price of gas has more than doubled and inflation has cut the buying power of a dollar in half. The economic squeeze play over the past 25 years has left Colorado without enough money to maintain roads and bridges, invest in public transit, or create walk-able, bike-able communities.

Against this backdrop of inflation and stagnant taxes, the Colorado legislature now is debating how to fund transportation infrastructure and programs. The key points of debate include how much of the state’s general fund dollars can be allocated to transportation without harming public education; and the appropriate mix of dollars for state and interstate highways, public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and local roads.

Here are a few key principles that SWEEP urges legislators to use when considering these issues:

  1. Colorado’s transportation needs are diverse and multi-modal (such as public transit, pedestrian crossings, or bike lanes), so transportation funding should reflect this;
  2. Most travel happens within our communities – that is, on most days, most Coloradans go from home to work, school, the store, or local activity inside their own towns. So, local governments need flexible funds to invest in whatever transportation improvements make the most sense for their communities;
  3. Colorado state government spends only about one cent per person per day on public transit, which is 20 times lower than the national average. Any bill worth passing should significantly increase transit funding;
  4. Remember, transportation has overtaken electricity generation as the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution. New revenue for transportation should support low-carbon modes of travel;
  5. We can’t build our way out of congestion. After the massive T-Rex project widened portions of Interstate 25 to 10 lanes, congestion was back to pre-construction levels in only four years. Any plan that only expands highways will just lead to more cars on the road and more pollution. (See chart, below.) 

Last year, a broad coalition of businesses, local government leaders, public transit advocates, and other groups supported House Bill 1242, which would have asked voters to approve a tax measure to significantly increase state investment in not only roads, but also public transit, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Local governments also would have gotten flexible funding to pay for their communities’ most important transportation needs. Unfortunately, despite broad, bipartisan support, the state senate ultimately defeated the bill.

This year, the legislature has more money to work with, both because the state’s economy is booming and because the new federal tax law may make Coloradans pay more state income taxes. Lawmakers may allocate part of that new money to fix Colorado’s transportation problems.

Unfortunately, the first major transportation bill (Senate Bill 1), which passed the senate on March 28 and could go to a House committee in the near future, is deeply flawed.

On its face, SB 1 would allocate $500 million of general funds dollars to transportation for 2018, and refer a measure to the voters to issue billions of dollars in bonds, which would be repaid over 20 years by a continuing, annual allocation of $250 million. But SB 1 ignores key public needs.  For example, it allocates no money to local governments, even though most trips take place on local streets. It also would allocate only 10 percent to public transit, and has no dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

SB 1 also effectively prohibits toll lanes and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, assuring that new highway capacity will be general purpose lanes that,like the ineffective I-25 expansion through south metro Denver, will be clogged within a few years of completion. By contrast, toll lanes on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder enabled the Regional Transportation District to create Bus Rapid Transit and helped reduce congestion on the heavily traveled route.

The state House of Representatives can fix SB 1, however, by amending the bill to address the principles articulated earlier. In particular, SWEEP would support amendments that:  

  1. Create a new, multi-modal options fund for public transit, and for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, with at least 15 percent of total revenue dedicated to the fund;
  2. Allocate at least 40 percent of the total revenue to cities and counties to address local needs;
  3. Dedicate the rest of the funding to the Colorado Department of Transportation for road or multimodal projects on state and federal highways;
  4. Remove the ban on toll and HOV lanes, and instead require that at least 10 percent of toll revenues support public transit in the toll corridor.

Your legislators need to hear from you about the need to invest in public transit, and walking and bicycle improvements. These key elements should be part of any new transportation funding.

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.