Colorado’s Recent Transportation Successes, Future Challenges Highlighted

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 imparted 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. “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 Interstate 70 artery and on Interstate 25, which is the north-south artery through Colorado Springs and Denver. Interstate 25 is part of a primary connection between Canada and Mexico, which the state has no plans to widen before 2070 due to 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, and helps with a multimodal system.”

An investment in public transit made 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, 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.

The Regional Transportation District 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 said.

Public-private partnerships, or P3s, were key to several successful Denver-area transportation projects in the wake of the recession, which significantly impacted the revenues the 2004 sales tax increase was expected to produce. One of those was a project to add tolled express lanes to heavily congested 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 CDOT on its own could never have completed in this decade.”

Cheroutes said the state’s emphasis on public-private partnerships 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 transportation funding 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 CDOT’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 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.

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