Transit Is Laughably Underfunded in Colorado

Image: SWEEP
Image: SWEEP

Colorado spends less than 1 cent per person per day on transit. If that sounds like a paltry amount, you’re right. The national average is 20 times higher, according to a policy brief by the Southwestern Energy Efficiency Project released this week [PDF].

The Centennial State is behind far less urbanized places like North Dakota, Wyoming, and Kansas.

SWEEP released the report as state legislators debate a ballot measure to raise transportation funds. Republicans and Democrats at the capitol are trying to agree on the revenue-raising mechanism, the amount, and how the money will be spent. A big question is whether lawmakers will lavish resources on expanding highways that the state already cannot afford to maintain, or whether transit, walking, and biking will get a fair shake.

“We thought it was important in this discussion for decision makers to understand just how much the state of Colorado has underfunded multimodal transportation over the years,” said Will Toor, SWEEP’s transportation program director.

The state should be spending more than $500 million more per year to meet urban and rural transit needs, according to a 2016 report by SWEEP and Colorado PIRG. If things don’t change, by 2040, metro Denver could face a transit funding shortfall of $900 million per year, according to the brief, which analyzed CDOT’s transit plan.

A more modest goal would be to match the transit funding rate in leading states, which would amount to $277 million more per year.

“We don’t need to get to the top, but it would be nice if we could just be average,” Toor said.

The only consistent stream for state transit funding comes from vehicle registration fees and totals $15 million a year. The amount is fixed and doesn’t increase with car ownership. Localities can use their portion of gas tax revenues for transit, but the tax has not increased in a quarter century and inflation has weakened its buying power.

Last year a would-be ballot measure never got off the ground because the road lobby wrote it to prioritize highways and snub transit. That just won’t fly this time around.

“If we want to meet the actual needs of the residents of Colorado, those needs are inherently multimodal,” said Toor. “If this thing is going to pass on the ballot, it needs to address the things that people care about, and we have multiple polls over the years that show things like safe ways for kids to walk and bike to school, public transit that helps get the elderly and disabled to medical appointments, and transit that helps get people to work and to school — those are all things that people care about, and if they’re not part of a ballot measure it’s not gonna pass.”

  • TakeFive

    Context is Everything.

    Each state is different with respect to their revenue and spending priorities and obligations. For example, Arizona collects 5.2% in sales tax while Colorado only collects 2.9% (at the State level). The Colorado legislature has chosen to obligate the GF (General Fund) heavily to education and health care. While many states more generously fund their state DOT, there has been precious little funding left over for that in Colorado. CDOT is poorly funded. It sucks. That’s why four highway corridors are or will be partly funded by tolls. CDOT has at least a $900 million per year deficit over what they need based on how they currently define their responsibilities.

    It’s also worth noting that many states including Red states have increased their fuel taxes in recent years. The growing states of Washington and Georgia in 2015 added a $billion in annual funding to their DOT’s. FWIW, the Republicans in this state have been AWOL, derelict in their duties.

  • TakeFive

    Since the topic is transit funding it requires another comment. Most metro areas west of the Mississippi take responsibility for funding transit at the city/county level. The Twin Cities though has received a lot of State help in the past. The best recent examples are the passage of ST3 in Seattle and Measure M in Los Angeles (County). Those are Yuge funding measures.

    The best funding model that I’m aware of is in Phoenix. MAG or Maricopa Assoc. of Govt’s current annual budget is $863.8 million which includes ADOT and Federal matching funds. The county sales tax for transportation is now over 30 years old. Currently, 30% is allocated to transit. It’s how Phoenix has been able to build a First in Class freeway system that is indeed free – no tolling. Note: I’m NOT promoting freeways; I’m promoting the value of a healthy metro area dedicated revenue stream for transportation.

    Funding is but one of my many fetishes and why I had fun coming up with a $15.5 billion Denver metro transportation/transit plan that should leverage up to about $27.5 billion.

    • Tom

      Mass transit funding on the Front Range should be paid for by the counties whose citizens will be using it. Why should we on the Western Slope pay for it with our state tax money when we won’t be using it?

      • mattlogan

        Why can’t the same argument be made about the state taxes Front Range residents pay for roads on the Western Slope that they will not be using? 20% of CDOTs budget comes from the state’s general fund. If you can dip into that fund for your roads, why can’t Front Range municipalities dip into that fund for what it considers to be a priority?

    • TakeFive

      Tom… You would be correct – at least as things currently stand. Ofc CDOT would be happy to do whatever the Legislature wants and provides funding for.

      For transit, the Colorado Legislature has chosen to allow the creation of special transit taxing districts. RTD would be the most infamous but there’s many others including Eagle-Summit Counties and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority or RFTA which touts having the first rural BRT system in the country. RFTA would love to find a way to fund light rail between Snowmass Village and City of Aspen.

      Including me, I suspect most have no idea the help that CDOT has provided around the state. Whenever they have done major highway projects they have often included construction of local bike trails . I-25 in southern CO for example. But if they do bike trails in Durango other than the locals nobody cares – unless you’re one who knows how fabulous that part of the state is. Typically such project include securing Federal grants so they’re not a part of any regular allocation.

      Since RFTA runs along SH82, CDOT likely made some road improvements along with providing technical analysis assistance. Bustang buses now service the I-70 mountain corridor and was recently beefed up due to demand. They hope to expand the service all the way to Grand Junction over time. I’m also aware that they will assist Glenwood Springs in building a bus station which will be used by both the RFTA and Bustang.