Mayor Hancock, City Council Have No Excuse to Shortchange Transit

Globeville Bus Stop
A woman waits for a bus in Globeville. Making transit more accessible should figure prominently in elected officials’ decisions this budget season. Photo: Wes Marshall

Mayor Michael Hancock has been quick to tout Denver’s status as a post-recession boom town, but not so quick to use the city’s bulging purse to fund transit and active transportation. That should change, if elected officials follow through on their recently announced budget priorities.

According to the City Council’s budget priorities, “transit infrastructure and safety” top the list. The City Council just revised the priorities to reflect input from new members. This version of the priorities is what will inform the budget process that starts this week, in which the mayor, city agencies, and the City Council hash out how to allocate public funds.

Here is some of what council members say they want to do, according to the document:

  • Dramatically improve the level, safety, and equity of Denver’s multi-model transit options city-wide, bolstering critical connections between the four quadrants of the City and to the urban core.
  • Make Denver a “transit city.”
  • Invest in innovative and on-demand transportation infrastructure throughout the city.
  • Enhance first and last mile connections.
  • Fund infrastructure that supports walkability and bike ability city-wide.
  • Significantly accelerate implementation of Denver Moves.

Except for the implementation of Denver Moves, the city’s woefully underfunded bike infrastructure plan, these ideas aren’t very specific. I spoke to City Council members Robin Kniech (At-large) and Mary Beth Susman (District 5) to decode them.

They highlighted two significant changes embedded in these budget priorities: speeding up implementation of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and taking some responsibility for Denver’s transit network so the city doesn’t have to rely as much on RTD.

“[The priorities] are also our recognition that RTD is not the right entity, perhaps, to solve every transit issue within Denver,” Kniech said. “We’ve relied on a regional transportation district, and in some cases we have very intra-city issues. So it’s about us exploring our goals. Should Denver provide more local transit? Is it OK to have other smaller agencies operate it? What’s the method?”

Denver is unusual in that its transit agency is both regional and directly elected. Since many RTD board members are elected from suburban or rural districts, they don’t care much about urban transportation.

Susman, who has been unsuccessfully jumping through hoops to allow private companies like Bridj to fill in transit gaps left by RTD, said she wants the city to fund a study that analyzes whether Denver can become “masters of our own destiny” when it comes to transit.

“Would a Denver transit authority give us more say over our inner city transit?” she said. “Is it a financially sound thing to do?” Susman said the city has the authority to create one, and that she spoke with Hancock, who agreed to assemble a group to examine the idea. Meanwhile, the city is supposed launch a study this fall about how to improve Denver’s intra-city transit network.

While wresting some authority from RTD is a long-term goal, the city can do more today to make transit appealing. Susman said Denver Public Works should be creating protected bike lanes, sidewalks, bus stops, and bus lanes to complement recent investments in rail and wring more efficient use out of the city’s limited street space. Right now the city doesn’t even have a full-time staffer dedicated to transit, according to Kniech.

“We’ve all been strong supporters of Fastracks, but multi-modalism has taken on increased importance as the pace of growth picks up and the economy starts to recover,” Kniech said. “My impression is that the pace of infrastructure needs to quicken to keep up with the private development that we’re seeing.”

City departments will vie for funding based on the priorities set by the mayor and council. DPW will make its case next Tuesday. With a booming local economy and a consensus among the city’s elected decision makers that Denver’s streets need a modern makeover, there’s no excuse to short city residents on improvements.

“At a time like this when resources are strong, I would not expect a lot of push and pull,” Kniech said. “The priorities that you see in front of you are not controversial… We might’ve prioritized them slightly differently but there’s a pretty strong consensus on those items. That’s my observation.”

This post originally stated that the Council’s budget priorities are set by the mayor’s office and influenced by the city council. It has been changed to reflect that the document is actually set solely by the City Council.