3 Losses for Sustainable Transportation in the 2017 Colorado General Assembly

Motorists have carte blanche at the Capitol, inside and out. Photo: David Sachs
Motorists have carte blanche at the Capitol, inside and out. Photo: David Sachs

Another session under the Colorado Capitol dome is done. (Maybe.)

The Colorado General Assembly’s most debated bill of 2017? Probably a sales tax hike for $3.5 billion in transportation funding that eventually imploded along party lines. But that bill wasn’t the only way state electeds failed transit, walking, and biking.

We’ll look at legislative wins later in the week, but for now, here are the losses.

The death of statewide multimodal funding

It began as a bipartisan transportation tax-and-bond bill that would have, for the first time, dedicated a significant amount state funding for transit, walking, and biking — $120 million for a “multimodal fund” plus complete local control of money funneled to municipalities.

Then the Republican-controlled Colorado Senate watered it down. Finally, in this story’s denouement, legislators chose to continue on the wide road of a one-dimensional, car-focused system. Legislators settled on a bond package that will raise $1.8 billion for regressive road projects like widening I-25 south and north of Denver and I-70 in the mountains, while setting aside just 10 percent for transit. Governor Hickenlooper has yet to sign the bill into law.

What could have been a springboard for a “true statewide transit system” instead became more of the same, said Colorado Public Interest Research Group Director Danny Katz. Sidewalks and bike lanes took a big hit, too.

“Colorado had a chance to join the majority of our states in the country and actually invest in walking and biking,” Katz said. “So when [the bill] failed, we continued to fail to support, on a statewide level with statewide dollars, walking and biking. And you can’t have a transportation system that doesn’t have those two components. So we continue to have a segmented, siloed transportation system, which is gonna make it harder to make it safer and harder to make it cleaner, harder to make it more efficient.”

Free rein for automated vehicles in cities

There are plenty of questions as to whether driverless cars are ready for unpredictable, urban streets filled with people.

Nevertheless, early on in the session, legislators decided to clear the way for the budding automated vehicle industry to test their unproven robocars on Colorado streets. The bill also strips urban centers like Denver of any ability to create their own regulations.

This, despite recommendations from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (Denver is a member city) to ban partially automated vehicles from city streets, and restrict automated vehicle speeds to 25 mph or less [PDF].

No “Idaho stop” for Coloradans

As Streetsblog reported back in February, Republican senators Vicki Marble, Randy Baumgardner, and Jerry Sonnenberg killed a safety bill that would have have let people on bikes treat stop signs as yields and red lights as stop signs.

The bill, which died in the Senate Transportation Committee, was modeled after a longstanding law in Idaho. Colorado’s Summit County adopted a similar bill and embraced its common sense.

In the end, opponents scoffed at the idea that people riding 30-pound bicycles should be treated differently than people operating two-ton motor vehicles.

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that NACTO suggests banning all automated vehicles from city streets. NACTO recommends banning partially automated vehicles.

  • TakeFive

    Just as in years past when it only took a few key Dems to nix more affordable housing by always sending construction (condo) defects reform to a Kill Committee, it only took a few key Republicans who pledge their allegiance to the Koch-Bro/Americans for Prosperity to kill an amazingly creative and thoughtful Transportation Plan. /sigh

    • deadindenver

      So tired of Repuke’s and Demonuts, it’s not about the people but there slate of special interests. Idaho is a very Red state yet they are actually progressive on the bicycle front. The Idaho stop is a no brainer, doesn’t really a cost yet a couple of Repuke’s can kill it. And don’t even get me started on the trial lawyers and the Demonuts.

  • TakeFive

    I assume the priority will be I-25 projects coming north from C-Springs or “The Gap” from Monument to Castle Rock ( https://www.codot.gov/projects/I25COSDEN/i25monumenttoc470-assets/april-2017-meeting-materials/i-25-pel-meeting-2-combined-boards ) as well as up to Fort Collins. Any incremental improvements to I-70 into the mountains will be welcome.

    legislators chose to continue on the wide road of a one-dimensional, car-focused system. Legislators settled on a bond package that will raise $1.8 billion for regressive road projects like widening I-25 south of Denver and I-70 in the mountains…

    I assume you’d admit to being a bit myopic, even presumptive as to what is best for others – outside of the metro area?

    Given that those who live in the suburbs and more rural areas are typically happier than those who live in big urban centers, I’ll respect their wishes. -:)

    • John Riecke

      Given that the big cites subsidize the highways of the rural areas I’d figure that they’d be okay with us becoming more efficient and wealthy so that we can continue to support their life choices.

      • TakeFive

        Well if you wish to continue enjoying your farm-to-market diet then it is important for state DOT’s to fulfill their obligation to ALL of the state. But you may be short-changing the importance (and influence) of the I-70 mountain corridor to the state’s economy.

        FWIW, CDOT has prioritized the metro area by already accelerating the completion of U.S. 36 by 25 years in utilizing a P3. Currently they are helping out our good friends in DougCo with C-470; they’ve added to the express lanes in north Denver metro and finished redoing most of the central Denver interchanges along I-25.

        • mattlogan

          The things is, the volume of shipping traffic is not what is reducing efficiency of these highways, it is the people living the “drive until you qualify” lifestyle, and the more suburban municipalities engaging in economically counter-productive “job poaching” that is the issue.

          Unfortunately, “the state’s economy” is less likely to benefit from highway expansions than it was in the 1960’s, before the parasitic effects of induced demand neutralized the benefits.

          • TakeFive

            the “drive until you qualify” lifestyle

            is now old hat; it’s from a by-gone era. I’ve never seen so much infill development. Do some people drive to Commerce City bcuz of Denver’s unaffordability? Ofc but it’s nothing compared to past decades.

            suburban municipalities engaging in economically counter-productive “job poaching”

            Most “job-poaching” is being done by Denver, not the suburbs. I think you’re reaching or thinking of olden times.

            the parasitic effects of induced demand

            is a talking point. It’s about capacity needs already existing from population growth. If lanes are added they don’t do so to just look pretty; ofc they induce more use. At some point it’s important to remember that we still have a free country where we people exercise free will on where we wish to live and work.

          • mattlogan

            “But it’s also important to remember that we still have a free country where we people exercise free will on where we wish to live and work.”

            The problem is, the expansions are not economically productive as they were in 1970. Given that over half of Americans want more alternatives to highways, it is time to reconsider the blind faith belief that projections of population growth prove demand for highway expansion.

          • TakeFive

            expansions are not economically productive as they were in 1970.

            1970 is but one year and no more than a blip on the graph. The 1970’s you might recall were not the most productive time. The 1980’s were much more productive as were the 1990’s. The country is currently stuck in GDP growth of about 2%. Productivity has been negligible for a few years now despite the ongoing tech advancements. Call it the law of diminishing returns, I suspect. Economic productivity sounds like more of a “bullet point” and is a rather subjective (to measure) and esoteric subject.

            over half of Americans want more alternatives to highways

            Most Americans would love to win a brand new car. The question is what are they willing to pay for? If you’re talking about metro Denver then I’ve proposed a $15.5 billion transportation plan over 20 years that is based on the funding models used in Seattle and Phoenix, two of the better transportation funded cities in the country. What’s your plan?

          • mattlogan

            Whatever the national GDP, the fact is that highway expansions produced a much higher return in 1970 than they do today. In fact, leaving the money in the private sector would have been a better investment than funding the average highway project in 2005.

            The law of diminishing returns applies to highways – today, we can build more, but we can no longer expect to see a positive impact on the national economy.

          • TakeFive

            The efficient movement of goods and services is very much a productivity issue. Additionally, poor maintenance leads to more down time and cost of vehicle repair. That is also a productivity issue.

            Moving people is also a productivity issue. Since over 90% of Denver metro residents choose to drive then roads are still needed.

            As much as I may support more and better transit calling them productive sounds like an oxymoron when you consider the high capital and operating costs which I just happen to read about yesterday. Examples: https://www.thoughtco.com/bus-cost-to-purchase-and-operate-2798845https://www.thoughtco.com/bus-and-light-rail-costs-2798852

          • mattlogan

            But it appears there are negatives that exceed the value realized in the sub-domain of more efficient delivery – according the to latest national studies. And considering that we are within 20 years of having the existing capacity double (and labor costs cut significantly) as a result of the adoption of autonomous shipping technology, the value of expansions becomes even more doubtful.

            And of course, transit’s operating costs come largely from the cost of the operator, which once again, will be virtually eliminated by autonomous vehicle technology.

          • TakeFive

            lol, you have a way of broaching several issues very vaguely. I suspect partially it depends on which studies one is reading. Btw, I much prefer not framing things as good v. evil.

            Does Denver – as opposed to multi-nodal cities like Dallas and Phoenix – need moar, better transit? Absolutely. Do drivers make up a significant cost? Sure. I also have full confidence that any driver savings will be more than offset by increasing tech (dependence), maintenance and security needs.

            Lastly, you can’t just flip a switch. A fare cost-recovery of only about 25 percent (currently) will likely mean slow(er) going.

          • mattlogan

            “you have a way of broaching several issues very vaguely. I suspect partially it depends on which studies one is reading”

            You can go right the the FHWA and look up the research on economic benefits of highway expansion. the general trend since 1970 has been negative, with the main research showing a drop below the return of leaving the money in the private sector as of 2005:

            http://research.upjohn.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1118&context=reports

            “Mamuneas addresses the question of the contribution of highways to the national economy by estimating the value placed on highways by consumers and producers. He finds that from 1949 through 2005, the net rate of return of highways averages 28.7 percent. He compares this rate with the return on private capital (as reflected in interest rate on the 10-year U.S. Treasury security) averaged over the same time period. Finding that the net rate of return on highways (28.7 percent) is higher than the average long-term interest rate (6.2 percent), he concludes that highways make a contribution to the economy and the country has been underinvested in highway capital stock until recently when the net rate of return fell below the interest rate. ”

            There is indeed a difference of opinion depending on which study you read – but the studies that tend to show a benefit (like from the US chamber of commerce) do not account for growth that comes at the expense of a transfer for another part of the economy – they simply count the growth and fail to measure the expense.

            “Lastly, you can’t just flip a switch.”

            Correct, but since concrete lasts 50 years, traffic engineers plan 50 years into the future when anticipating needs. Compared to the planning horizon of today’s highway projects, autonomous vehicle technology is indeed the flip of a switch.

          • TakeFive

            Eh, you must be smarter than you look. -:) Thanks for the good source.

            As it happened I’ve watched both Phoenix and Denver grow up together. They’re very different places. Phoenix’s First-in-Class freeway system enhanced by now Urban Corridor light rail works marvelously. Not sure the same rules would apply to both places since they are so different.

            I can believe that “beltway” freeways as opposed to more critical freight corridors are not as “productive.” They’re prolly more accommodative to the country’s suburbanization. It is also possible that w/o them there would be a negative productivity factor?

            More importantly you don’t get do-overs. The question now is how best to proceed.

            News Flash: Like the children’s song sings “the wheels on the bus go round and round” – on roads, even in Caracas. Many people dislike buses due to the condition of those roads which also adds to bus maintenance costs over time. May I suggest that roads will be with us for a very long time.

          • mattlogan

            “Btw, I much prefer not framing things as good v. evil.”

            Here is the reality – Colorado funds alternative transportation at about half the national average (as a percentage) for states. Why? In large part because of the belief in the return on investment for highways versus multimodal. Studies suggest highways no longer produce the results people think they do. Therefore a re-evaluation of priorities is in order. this is not about good vs evil – it is about creating the policy framework to make smart choices that effect everyone.

          • TakeFive

            Hmm, sounds like a CoPIRG analysis – seriously flawed.

            Every state is different and just bcuz something isn’t a regular budget item doesn’t mean that “capital projects” haven’t accomplished much more than you are likely aware of. Tis true though that Colorado has had great difficulty funding transportation. CDOT is one of the worst funded state DOT’s in the country.

            States vary widely as to their revenues and expenses. AZ for example, collects 5.2 percent sales tax while Colorado collects only 2.9 percent. No question though that there’s a slew of states that have better funded both roads and transit systems.

          • mattlogan

            Well, my state rep and state senator clearly believe investing in highways is highly profitable, and don’t believe CDOT should even be building anything else. So if there is something flawed, you might want to start with scrutinizing the policy orthodoxy of GOP legislators.

            I find it difficult to believe that a state like Colorado, with a highly-active population would want to be forced to drive to work. I know my workplace (a company that makes software for training athletes) was considering subsidizing bus passes for employees – people expressed interest in riding the bus to work, but since the transit service is so sparse with a typical commute via transit today taking more than an hour (mine would be 2 hours), the company decided not to provide passes.

            So I see a huge disconnect between what I see people want, and what the state is funding.

          • TakeFive

            As I suggested, in Colorado, CDOT is very poorly funded. Other states have different revenue and expense profiles. I have nothing to do with any of that. It is what it is. What you cut from the state budget in order to provide more transportation funding? I personally give infrastructure funding a very high priority.

            BTW, CDOT has built some amazing bike trails around the state. They have also assisted with resort areas in establishing their loca transit. They’ve pretty much carried Durango’s costs which will be changing and Durango will have to decide how important their local trolley is. CDOT also recently initiated Bustang which has been yugely successful. With such limited funds, not too shabby I’d say.

            Lastly, you’re “forced” to drive bcuz your employer won’t get you passes?

          • mattlogan

            “The question is what are they willing to pay for?”

            If you provide only highways, then people will be forced to pay for highways, seeing no viable alternative. However, if the State GOP can be trusted, it appears people are not even willing to pay more for highways.

          • TakeFive

            Exactly, people love shiny new things but would much prefer that somebody else pays for it. Just the same both blue and red states have been raising their gas and other taxes for needed road improvements. The growing states of GA and WA, for example, both raised a $billion a year for their state’s DOT back in 2015. Portland is in the process of raising taxes for new highway expansion as well.

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