Detractors of Hickenlooper’s Bike Plan Want to Hold Colorado Back

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Governor John Hickenlooper announced his bike plan last week at Interbike in Las Vegas. Photo:

Two camps emerged after Governor John Hickenlooper announced that the state will invest more than $100 million in making Colorado better for biking and walking: those who saw the bid as a way to expand travel choices while reducing traffic injuries and deaths, and those who viewed it as a threat to the idea that all transportation dollars should be spent on car infrastructure.

Hickenlooper’s pledge includes a commitment from the Colorado Department of Transportation to devote at least 2.5 percent of its $738 million budget to bike and pedestrian projects. That’s more than nothing, but also not a huge amount if you consider walking and biking to be fundamental parts of the state’s transportation system.

Still, the pledge sent a signal that change is afoot at CDOT. And any time there’s progress on funding for complete streets, the same stale arguments from the same stale thinkers come out of the woodwork.

Cue Randal O’Toole, a shill for the fossil fuel industry who thinks transit is a waste and sprawl is the natural order of the universe. “I don’t think you need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars here,” O’Toole told the Denver Post. “Just find out where bicyclists are going and provide safe facilities for them on roads they are already using. A lot of times, these projects are automobile-hostile improvements, like reducing the number of lanes in already-crowded roadways.”

“Automobile-hostile environments.” That’s how O’Toole describes road diets that include bike lanes, like the one on Folsom Street in Boulder, or the redesign proposed for South Broadway in Denver. These projects make streets safer for all users, spur economic activity, and give people additional choices about how to get around. Ironically, in Colorado O’Toole hangs his hat at an organization called the Independence Institute (one of several think-tanks with ties to the Koch brothers where he holds a title), but he promotes dependence on one form of transportation — the private automobile.

We already know what happens when we design streets where moving cars takes precedence over all other forms of travel — we get fatal crashes like the one this weekend on Sheridan Boulevard. It’s no coincidence that Sheridan is one of Denver’s CDOT-operated streets and also one of the city’s worst pedestrian environments. To use O’Toole’s word, it’s a hostile place to walk or bike.

The Denver Business Journal, whose editor has similarly anachronistic ideas about transportation, covered the governor’s announcement with this headline: “Not everyone cheering Hickenlooper’s $100 million, 4-year bicycle plan.” Randy Baumgardner, a state senator from Hot Sulphur Springs, told the paper: “I’d like to see the highway infrastructure fixed before we start spending money on lessor infrastructure projects.”

What makes bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects “lessor”? After all, a dollar for bike-ped improvements goes a lot farther than a dollar for highways. Consider that a single highway project, the widening of I-70, is projected to cost $1.8 billion. For a small fraction of that — $100 million — here’s what you could buy:

  • About 600 miles of protected bike lanes
  • One year’s worth of RTD passes for more than 100,000 people.
  • About 600 miles of badly needed sidewalks, or 20,408 high-visibility crosswalks.

And by enabling people to make more trips without getting in their cars, these projects help prevent wear and tear on roads. If we want our roads to be in good condition, making them accessible only to the heaviest vehicles and most damaging forms of travel isn’t the way to go.

Yet according to the Business Journal, Baumgardner wanted voters to renew the bond program that paid for T-REX, the highway project that widened I-25 to “improve congestion” — and promptly reached pre-construction congestion levels just four years later.

It’s almost as if the people agitating against the governor’s bike plan don’t actually care about goals like improving safety, reducing traffic, getting good value out of transportation spending, and giving people greater freedom to travel how they please. They just don’t want more people on bikes.