Despite some good parts, Colorado's transportation bill still needs work

As the State Senate debates SB21-260, Colorado's transportation funding bill, I sent this message to them to articulate why the bill needs more work.

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Danny Katz
Executive Director

Author: Danny Katz

Executive Director

(303) 573-7474 ext. 303

Started on staff: 2001
B.A., University of Virginia

Danny directs the operations of CoPIRG and is a leading voice in Denver and across the state to improve transit, stop identity theft, increase consumer protections, and get big money out of our elections. Danny has spearheaded efforts to electrify Colorado’s transportation systems, and co-authored a groundbreaking report on the state’s transit, walking and biking needs over the next 25 years. Danny also serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's Efficiency and Accountability Committee and Transit and Rail Advisory Committee, and is a founding member of the Financial Equity Coalition, a collection of public, private, and nonprofit organizations committed to bringing financial security to communities throughout Colorado. He resides in Denver with his family, where he enjoys biking and skiing, the neighborhood food scene and raising chickens.

CoPIRG does not yet support SB21-260, the transportation funding bill, because it does not have enough guardrails around the anticipated highway investments. 

SB21-260 does a lot of important things and it’s important to recognize that up front and the work the sponsors, the Governor’s office and various agencies put into developing this bill. 

The pressure to find more sustainable funding for our transportation system is high. We all know the purchasing power of the gas tax has been cut in half over the last few decades and this is projected to get worse as more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles merge onto our roads. We need more dollars just to maintain our current transportation system, much less meet the population increase anticipated over the next few decades. 

Add to that the huge challenge of climate change and the fact that our transportation system is the largest source of climate pollution, not to mention a significant source of other air pollutants that contribute to ozone and unhealthy air days. Our transportation system is also unnecessarily dangerous - over 600 people die on our roads a year. It also lacks safe options, which fuels congestion (and the stress that that brings) and pushes people into owning and operating a vehicle, something that costs on average $9,000 for new vehicles in Colorado. That’s if you can drive, which a number of people in Colorado either can’t or don’t want to. 

Based on these challenges we are appreciative that the sponsors have chosen to bring a bill forward to tackle our transportation system. 

We also want to acknowledge a number of strong aspects of this bill, critical pieces to building a better transportation system.

  • Investing over $700 million in electric vehicle infrastructure will bring big benefits to the state. Electric vehicles are cleaner than fossil fuel vehicles and as the electric grid grows cleaner, the clean air benefits will increase. This bill strategically invests in a number of critical pieces of the electric vehicle world that are important to reach the state’s 1 million electric vehicle goal and lay the groundwork for a broad transformation that all of us will benefit from financially including e-bikes, transit and school buses, community charging, and fleets. We cannot meet our pollution goals without a rapid transition to electric vehicles and they are a lot cheaper to fuel than the alternatives.
  • Dedicating tens of millions to Main Streets programs like the Safer Main Streets and Revitalizing Main Streets programs. Our downtowns and the arterials that act as our main streets are often the heart of our communities. But too often, we built our roads through these areas in ways that made them unsafe, less accessible, and less pleasant to spend time along. In 2020, CDOT launched an excellent program that’s steering dollars into these critical streets to ensure they are safe and people friendly for everyone to access and enjoy the shops, entertainment, and appointments that are critical to our quality of life. I wrote about the benefits of this program here. The dollars in this bill fall short of what I think we need and what this program deserves, but every dollar will make a difference.
  • Continuing to invest in multimodal options across the state. While this bill falls short of a transformational investment in transit, it does create consistent funding that will allow for more multimodal investments in transit service. In the transit world, capital dollars are important but you can build all the mobility hubs and buy all the buses you want - you need the operating dollars to actually run service. Transit providers have a difficult time providing service with one-time dollars since service needs to extend year in and year out (imagine a road disappearing after a year - that doesn’t encourage people to use that mode). Dedicated annual dollars are critical and we should maximize as much of it in this bill as possible since many of the federal dollars we anticipate will be one-time capital and less ideal for expanding transit service. 
  • Identifying the environmental impacts of highway capacity projects. Given most of our vehicles are still gas-powered, more cars equals more pollution. If you don’t acknowledge that, then you can’t address it. Section 28 is a minimum step to take to highlight the potential problems of highway capacity projects and support efforts to address the environmental impacts. In a state with goals around reducing greenhouse gas emissions and a roadmap that identifies that we need to reduce the growth in vehicle miles traveled by 10% over the next decade, section 28 is an important statement that belongs in 2021’s biggest transportation policy - a bill that will likely lock us into major transportation projects beyond the next decade. If this bill doesn’t, at the very least, thoroughly model, consider, and seek to minimize the impacts of one of our largest investments, highway projects, then it is hard to assume that it will help us meet our climate goals.    

Despite these critical and important aspects of this bill, CoPIRG is still not in a support position because we are concerned that there are not enough guardrails to ensure we do not waste any dollars on highway capacity projects that fail to move us in a better direction. 

I don’t know anyone who looks at our highways and says, “You know what we need? More cars.” Or more cars competing for parking in our business districts and downtowns. Or more cars speeding through our neighborhood streets where our kids play. 

But yet, every year, we spend lots of money on road capacity infrastructure that recruits more cars onto our roads and underfunds healthier, safer and more environmentally sound options. We need to stem the flood of cars on our already flooded roads and build something better. 

Put another way -- when the bathtub is overflowing, you need to turn off the tap.

The big problem is that for decades we have tried to widen our way out of congestion. When you are stuck in congestion, adding a new lane to a road or highway seems like the right decision. But I think we are at a point, especially with our projected population growth, that every time we spend hundreds of millions on new highway capacity, we’ll see that capacity filled up within a few years. 

Nationally, the PIRG network has released a number of reports highlighting and documenting the many highway widening projects that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. All those highway projects also have some negative impacts on all the people who live near and are impacted by the pollution, noise, and disruptions every day. 

The cycle of ever expanding highways can have a detrimental impact on the rest of our transportation system. More people who drive on our highways are more people who drive in our local communities, putting pressure on our local roads. Highway capacity is also expensive and that means less dollars for the basic maintenance and repair and paving needs as well as less money for different strategies to deal with our growing transportation pressures - things like transit, better biking and walking infrastructure, and support for walkable communities with limited need to drive.

Colorado’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap sets a goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled 10% below forecasted 2030 levels. Separately, CDOT’s current Statewide Transportation Plan calls for a 1% cut in vehicle miles traveled annually. 

To reduce vehicle miles traveled, you need options. It helps when people live near where they work and play. But it also is critical that people feel safe to walk or bike in their neighborhood. DRCOG estimates that in its region 19% of trips are less than 1 mile and 43% of trips are less than three miles. Those would be quite doable by walking, rolling and biking (especially e-bikes). Not all of them need to be completed that way. But it’s hard to have any completed by foot, wheelchair, stroller or bike if people don’t feel safe, which is too often the case without proper infrastructure. 

Another critical option is transit. We need to transform our transit system in a way that actually recruits people to ride. Some of that is the fares and affordability. But we need much better service in urban and rural areas. 

We have a lot to build from. We have some of the best rural transit systems in the country. We have a growing Bustang and Outrider program, and coming microtransit service along the I-70 mountain corridor. We have new bus services from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. We have a Fastracks rail system in Denver and a bus system that connects one of the largest geographic transit regions in the country. 

The key is we need a lot more service. Fast, frequent and reliable. Service in urban areas that comes every 10 minutes and runs early in the morning and deep into the night to capture anyone enjoying our many breweries and outdoor concerts. It helps if that bus service has space it can use to avoid congestion like the Flatiron Flyer’s use of the managed lanes on U.S. 36. 

That kind of service that will truly meet the challenges we face will take a lot more money than is in this bill. It will take billions - more than this bill can dedicate, partly because we do need money to fix and maintain our roads. Hitting a pothole increases wear and tear on passenger vehicles but also impacts buses and can be life threatening on a bike. 

So I agree we need to invest lots of money in our roads. But let’s fix it first. Let’s focus on raising the quality of our urban and rural roads up to the top of this list. Let’s fix our bridges and tunnels and do the needed safety improvements. Let’s ensure we have safe, wide shoulders, especially on rural roads, which can be a huge benefit not just for cars and trucks but bicyclists too. All of that will take a lot of money. 

Therefore, given the need to fix and maintain what we got, and given the need to transform our transit and multimodal system so we can move a lot more people without flooding more cars onto our streets, we need guardrails in SB21-260 so the surface transportation dollars in the bill are focused on the right strategies over the next decade. We can’t afford to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that aren’t moving us to a more sustainable system.

A recent RMI blog took a crack at estimating the vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas pollution impacts of current highway capacity projects and future ones envisioned in our 10-year plan. The specific number is not as important to me as the bottomline studies and research that went into informing their findings. The fundamental concept is that if you build it, cars (and pollution) will come. 

We have to recognize that the government is in the transportation business and every decision puts a thumb on the scale. When you invest more in highways - whether to add capacity, relieve a bottleneck, or reduce congestion - than you do in multimodal systems where people can safely walk, roll, bike, or ride transit, you push people to drive. Our system is so one-dimensional in terms of options that we all pile into our car, bringing the congestion, pollution, crashes, and stress that so many of us would like to avoid. 

In the transportation world, it’s called induced demand. Without a clear plan and guardrails to ensure we are not only avoiding induced demand but transforming our system so we can be on a better path heading into 2030, I believe we will waste limited dollars on projects that make our problems worse. 

So whether it’s requiring high levels of transit service that equal the increased vehicle capacity of a new highway lane or screening projects before we spend money on them so we can reimagine them in ways that move more people and goods but not more cars with more pollution, we need some guardrails. 

U.S. 36 is often held up as a model for a new, managed lane that can buck the induced demand/increased vehicle trend. The key there was transit service built up and baked in on the front end. We had a lot to work with there. There is certainly promise with managed lanes and CDOT should be applauded for raising the bar of new lanes to be managed lanes. But without significant transit service embedded up front or other major VMT reducing strategies or guardrails laid out clearly as part of the projects goals early on, it stands to reason that the wealth of data and research that the RMI induced travel calculator was built off will hold true - making it easier to drive will make more people drive and reduce resources for other options. 

When the bathtub is overflowing we have to turn off the tap. We can’t keep the tap on while we’re cleaning up a flood. We may make progress, but we’re making it a lot harder.  

Ultimately, most people will drive for most trips over the next decade. The goals the state has are reducing VMT 10% not 90%. 10% is doable. But not if we begin the decade by investing limited money in projects that recruit people behind the wheel, especially if those dollars are much bigger than the dollars we’re spending on making our streets more people friendly and ramping up quality transit service.

We also don’t need every community to travel the same. Rural areas will drive a lot more. That’s fine. Urban areas can and should take the lead. But if you doubt that more people would choose other options than driving their own car check out this video of multimodal testimonials from people around the state and check out these multimodal stories. They highlight people who want and are even trying to travel without owning a car. But without real options (that are safe), we’re artificially ramping up driving and the problems that brings.             

SB21-260 will have huge impacts on every Coloradan for the next decade. It’s got some good pieces that should be minimums. But we need more guardrails to ensure we don’t invest in ways that will make it harder to meet the challenges of today and the goals of 2030 and beyond.

I hope the bill is strengthed. 

Danny Katz
Executive Director

Author: Danny Katz

Executive Director

(303) 573-7474 ext. 303

Started on staff: 2001
B.A., University of Virginia

Danny directs the operations of CoPIRG and is a leading voice in Denver and across the state to improve transit, stop identity theft, increase consumer protections, and get big money out of our elections. Danny has spearheaded efforts to electrify Colorado’s transportation systems, and co-authored a groundbreaking report on the state’s transit, walking and biking needs over the next 25 years. Danny also serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's Efficiency and Accountability Committee and Transit and Rail Advisory Committee, and is a founding member of the Financial Equity Coalition, a collection of public, private, and nonprofit organizations committed to bringing financial security to communities throughout Colorado. He resides in Denver with his family, where he enjoys biking and skiing, the neighborhood food scene and raising chickens.