Denver Can’t Rely on State Lawmakers to Fund Transportation the City Needs

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

If there’s one lesson that Denverites hoping for a 21st-century transportation system should take away from the current state legislative session, it’s this: No one in the capitol is coming to the rescue.

The legislation coming out of the state legislature would allow money that’s supposedly reserved for transit to go toward sound walls on Interstate highways. The bill would also make it much, much harder to toll highway lanes, precluding efforts to cut traffic and reduce subsidies for driving.

Senate Bill 1 would hand $500 million to the Colorado Department of Transportation immediately to spend “only on new highway construction projects.” The bill would ensure $250 million annually for CDOT’s transportation agenda, which consists almost entirely of highway projects.

All 35 state senators are fine with these provisions and approved SB1 unanimously last month.

While Denver aims to shift trips from driving to transit, biking, and walking, these measures in the bill take the state in the opposite direction.

It’s clear that any transportation funding package will be more about pleasing constituencies who live a stone’s throw from Utah, Oklahoma, and Kansas than about solving Denver’s problems as a growing city.

Policy favorable to Denver will always get weakened in the statehouse to satisfy rural interests. But the problem goes beyond that. State senators Irene Aguilar, Lucia Guzman, Angela Williams, Lois Court, and Tim Neville all rep the Mile High City — and all voted for SB 1.

The best Denver can hope for in this session is to stop this version of the legislation in the House.

SB 1 hasn’t had a hearing in the House yet, but influential business groups just put their weight behind it.

Meanwhile, Bicycle Colorado, WalkDenver, BikeDenver, and the Southwestern Energy Efficiency Project have come out against SB1 and are asking their members to demand dedicated funding for transit, biking, and walking, as well as local control of transportation funds so cities and towns, not highway-obsessed CDOT, get more say.

The other route to raise transportation funds runs through the ballot box. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is leading a campaign to generate revenue from a sales tax increase, currently weighing five options that would bring in anywhere between $350 million and $1 billion annually for Colorado transportation [PDF]. If a ballot measure passes, 15 percent would be reserved for transit, biking, and walking, and 40 percent would be split evenly between cities and counties.

Still, most of that money will be spread out across the state, much of it going toward roads and not transit. It’s a far cry from the recent ballot measures in metro Seattle and Los Angeles, which raised $54 billion and $120 billion, respectively, with an emphasis on transit.

If Denver wants a transportation system that makes a city work well — with good transit, biking, and walking infrastructure — it will have to raise the money itself instead of relying on a state that still sees driving everywhere as the answer.

  • TakeFive

    For as long as CDOT has existed their responsibility is to do the bidding of voters and the legislature. Outside of the urban area there are things like farms and ranches, oil & gas, mining and tourism which are Yuge drivers of the state’s economic output.

    So far as the legislature is concerned nothing has yet been decided. Business interests will support anything that actually accomplishes transportation funding that helps meet the needs of the WHOLE state.

    I do recall more than a few comments I’ve made about the need for metro and/or city voter approved funding to meet local transportation needs. Personally, I’d prefer the Phoenix model that combines both city of Phoenix funding with metro funding.

  • LazyReader

    Biking in Denver? Year round? I think not. Over 75% of Denver commuters drive to and from work in cars themselves. While share who walk or bike has grown from 5.5 to 7.2 %, but this was offset by the decline in transit’s share from 8.7 to 6.9 %. Instead of punishing people who drive to work, cities should reduce the
    negative impacts of driving by making roads safer and reducing
    fuel-wasting and pollution-causing delays. Denver could decrease traffic congestion heavily by using simple tax incentives to encourage carpooling. Having spent tens of billions on light rail construction and upkeep they could have used a fraction of the money to subsidize official carpools

  • jmfay

    Lets try repaving existing streets that badly need it before we put more money into transit! After all; buses are running on the same streets! Alameda is one of them. Just took it from Peoria to CO and the Denver part was bad!

  • Jesse Bjerk

    Perhaps the westren slope can get some of that to fix all of the junk roads over here. We in rural Colorado don’t have the traffic volume so we get extremely limited funding for road repairs. While I agree Denver is congested I believe the money needs to be split equally

    • red123

      You actually get more per person than the Front Range . . . So . . .

  • Taufik Abidin

    easy way: dedicate certain roads and streets for cargo and transit only, effectively banning private cars and motorcycles entering. Peds and bicycles may still pass. Vans, trucks, busses can.

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