Colorado’s Recent Transportation Successes, Future Challenges Discussed at CSG West Transportation Forum

The city of Denver and state of Colorado have seen their share of transportation successes in recent years thanks in large measure to regional cooperation, federal investment, a 2004 tax increase, partnerships with the private sector and some innovative thinking. But the city and state face numerous challenges in the years ahead that will severely test the transportation system, notably a burgeoning population, stagnant federal investment and limits to increasing taxes at the state level. Those were some of the messages state and local officials delivered to a group of state legislators from eight states at the CSG West Transportation Forum last month in Denver.

“Colorado is choking on the very success that has drawn a lot of people to Colorado,” said Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). “We’ve got a massive amount of migration … and we have an interstate system in this state that was designed in the ‘50s, built in the ‘60s for a population of the 1980s that never envisioned the 5 million people who are here today and cannot possibly cope with the 8 million people who will be here in 2040.”

Bhatt said traffic congestion has become a major problem in the state, particularly on the east-west artery Interstate 70 and on Interstate 25, which is the north-south artery through Colorado Springs and Denver. I-25 is part of a primary connection between Canada and Mexico, which the state has no plans to widen before 2070 given current funding constraints.

“Tourism is a big draw for folks in Colorado,” Bhatt said. “Everybody wants to come to see those mountains that you can see … from your hotel rooms. Unfortunately it’s turning into a place where you can see but you can’t get there from here. …We have a $1 billion a year shortfall in Colorado that we’re underfunding. … This is a billion dollars of important stuff that reduces congestion, extends the life of bridges, (improves) pavement conditions, helps with a multimodal system.”

A $7 billion investment in public transit that began more than a decade ago might help the Denver region cope.

“In 2004, we were successful largely due to the region just really coming around and collaborating well together and supporting what we call our FasTracks program,” recalled David Genova, Interim General Manager of the Regional Transportation District (RTD), the transit agency serving the eight counties in the Denver Metro area.

Coloradans were asked to support the FasTracks program by voting to increase the state sales tax by four-tenths of a percent to fund a buildout of the various rail projects the Denver area is still in the midst of now.

RTD will debut five new transit lines next year including a light rail line that will connect Denver International Airport to recently renovated Denver Union Station, a multimodal transit hub that has spurred $1 billion in new development in downtown Denver and that is the product of an innovative public-private partnership, Genova noted.

Public-private partnerships (P3s) were a key to several successful Denver-area transportation projects in the wake of the recession, which had a significant impact on the revenues the 2004 sales tax increase was expected to produce. One of those was a project to add tolled Express Lanes to U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder.

“The first 15 miles of the corridor opened for tolling on (July 22),” said Michael Cheroutes of the Colorado High Performance Transportation Enterprise, the state’s P3 office. “It seems to be a success out there in terms of (improving mobility). The balance will be completed to Boulder at the end of the year. It’s about a $500 million project, which (the Colorado Department of Transportation) on its own could never have completed in this decade.”

Cheroutes said the state’s emphasis on P3s is in part necessitated by the challenge of raising new transportation revenues.

“Part of the problem in Colorado … is a Constitutional Amendment that requires a statewide vote for the increase of any kind of gasoline tax or statewide transportation tax,” he said. “So we are hamstrung by that. The voters have shown over at least the last five or 10 years a real reluctance (to raising) those taxes.”

The difficulty of that challenge also has led some to offer proposals that may not be in the state’s best interests, said Tony Milo of the Colorado Contractors Association, which represents the state’s highway contractors.

“A group of folks … offered up a proposal (this year) to bond for $3.5 billion and just use (the Colorado DOT’s) existing revenues to pay that money back,” he said. “Well the problem is … over the next 20 years, CDOT would be spending almost all of its maintenance funds paying back those bonds … and long term that would be a disaster.”

Milo said the time may have come to once again ask Coloradans to pay a bit more to support the state’s transportation system.

“We’re at a point now where we absolutely do not have a choice and we have to take the bull by the horns and show that leadership and start educating the public and it’s going to start with elected officials and the business community helping to educate their constituents on the problems that we have,” he said.

CDOT’s Bhatt noted there are plenty of states that have had success this year in approving new transportation revenues that his state could look to for inspiration.

“Washington (state) just passed the largest transportation bill in the state’s history--$16.5 billion,” he said. “Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, Iowa … these are very, very conservative, red states--infrared states.  But they have seen fit (to raise their gas taxes) because they view it as an economic imperative.”

But the Denver forum took place just as Congress was putting the finishing touches on yet another temporary extension of federal surface transportation programs and Highway Trust Fund bailout, the likes of which have caused significant uncertainty and delayed projects for states over the last several years.

“What we’ve been saying to Congress is the time for the fix is now,” said Brian Pallasch of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), one of the sponsors of the Denver forum. “We don’t want another five-month extension. … Lots of states have been holding back and not doing things. We feel the fix should include long-term, sustainable revenue. … You guys at the state level need … a long-term bill to be able to plan out your lives and your spending patterns in the state. Three months, six months, nine months, even 12 months is really not long enough to be able to do some of the larger projects that folks need to do.”

Bhatt said the recent brinksmanship in Congress came at a particularly inopportune time for state transportation officials and highway contractors around the country.

“This is the peak of the construction season,” Bhatt told attendees. “You could not come up with a stupider way to run transportation policy in this country and I don’t get it. … It’s just so frustrating when these are people’s lives, these are people’s jobs, this is the livelihood of our country that is at stake.”

Given the challenges of seeking additional funding for transportation at both the federal and state levels these days, ASCE’s Pallasch suggested project selection is going to need to be an important area of emphasis for state transportation officials and others going forward.

“What we’re going to have to do is start picking projects and picking solutions in the right way that they’ll have the most benefit for the largest number of folks or the most benefit for that economic corridor,” he said. “I think one of the things that we’ve been focused on is the fact that really transportation is the backbone of our economy … at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level.”

Colorado’s knack for building the right transportation projects is getting a lot of credit for some of the state’s recent economic development successes. Mike Gifford of the Associated General Contractors of Colorado, which represents the state’s commercial building contractors, noted that Arrow Electronics recently relocated to Colorado from New York and brought their entire supply chain with them. Charles Schwab recently opened a 1,900 employee facility in Lone Tree with room to expand to 4,000 employees. Google is building a 330,000 square foot project to house 1,500 employees in Boulder.

“Google located there because they’re less than half a mile from the final transit stop on the (bus rapid transit) line out U.S. 36,” Gifford said. “Charles Schwab in Lone Tree is right on (another recently awarded transit line).”

“I think we’ve hit the right investments at the right time,” said Kelly Brough, President and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “We maximized P3s. We said go after every federal dollar we could. … We got a lot of federal investment and some success. We were very creative in Union Station and how we got federal dollars, particularly railroad dollars, to come in on a transit system and help us as a loan. And then I think we took P3s … to a whole new level of what was possible. … I think we’ve been extremely smart about (having) a central hub that’s extremely attractive—both sexy and operational—and Union Station delivered on that. You’ve got to get to your airport because it’s key to your infrastructure and transportation system and moving people around.”

But Brough also pointed to another challenge the region will face in the years ahead.

“We do think the stats are real when you look at 27 percent of this next generation are purchasing cars versus 38 percent of the same age group 20 years earlier were purchasing cars,” she said. “The reduction in miles traveled by this generation … isn’t a blip on the radar but it really is a change in how transportation will be utilized.”

Millennials frequently are turning to smart phone app-enabled transportation options like Uber to get from place to place.

“Here’s what I think will govern the future,” Brough said. “It will be cheaper for me to get in someone else’s car than to maintain my own. Right now studies say about 96 percent of the time your car sits waiting for you to decide to use it. If one of my businesses said ‘Kelly, we’re going to make a major investment in something for the company that will sit idle 96 percent of the time’ we would say ‘outsource that. Hire that 4 percent of the time when you need it. It will be way cheaper than maintaining your own asset.’”

The challenges presented by Uber and, eventually, by autonomous vehicles as well as the challenge of better connecting transportation investment and economic development will require new and more inclusive kinds of planning, Brough believes.

“One of the things we’ve started to explore with three key partners (the Denver Regional Council of Governments planning organization, RTD and CDOT)… is how we might create a business non-profit planning entity for transportation in the metro area in the future so that transportation planning isn’t about what our history has been and we’re predicting our future based on our history but we’re actually predicting our future based on the technology transformations that are occurring today,” she said. “What we felt was if you could put business at the table to talk about the disruptions coming with traditional planners and process to set priorities, to identify the best returns on these investments and what we should be making, we could think very differently than we ever have in our history. And we’ve gotten a few foundations who say ‘we totally agree and if you can come up with a quarter million dollars, Chamber of Commerce, we’ll try to match you and see if we could seat that table—public and private—to do the planning work that traditionally was done only in the public sector.”

Facilitated Discussion

The Denver forum wrapped up with a facilitated discussion of a number of the themes addressed by speakers including:

  • The importance of partnerships between different entities in delivering successful transportation projects and what can be done to create successful collaboration to increase the number and speed of projects delivered;
  • Why the average American is so uninformed about transportation infrastructure issues and so unmotivated to support funding measures and what can be done about it. Participants suggested that many don’t recognize that transportation is a critical service or utility that must be paid for and don’t see what it takes to build and maintain infrastructure in their daily experience.
  • What can be done to improve the prioritization of transportation investments.

Participants divided into groups and ultimately came up with three recommendations for actions that could be taken to address these themes:       

  • Recommendation 1: Develop a process that identifies stakeholders and commonalities for transportation issues. CSG could facilitate the creation of a template to help policymakers identify stakeholders and issues. Those involved in states like Colorado that have had successful approaches to transportation could be called on to talk about what they did and how they did it.
  • Recommendation 2: Instigate a public information campaign to educate the public about where the money comes from for transportation and where it goes. This campaign would require various state and local transportation agencies and stakeholders to speak with one voice, perhaps through a not-for-profit group. The common message should be put in language the public can understand: instead of the billions needed to invest in infrastructure, it should focus on the contribution each citizen would be required to make.
  • Recommendation 3: Assess the transportation project prioritizing methodologies that are currently in use and find out what state departments of transportation and transportation planning regions are actually using to set their priorities. One member of the group suggested having a transportation session at a future CSG meeting where the methodologies could be examined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading