Opinion

Only one ballot issue can tackle Colorado’s transportation challenges

Author: Will Toor - August 10, 2018 - Updated: August 10, 2018

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Will Toor

Coloradans can help untangle their transportation woes by supporting a ballot measure, currently called Initiative 153. They shouldn’t be fooled by a go-nowhere alternative that does nothing to solve the complex problem.

The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) endorses one measure that appears to have made the ballot. On Aug. 6, organizers from Let’s Go Colorado delivered 198,000 signatures to the Colorado secretary of state for Initiative 153, which will let voters decide whether to raise the sales tax rate by 0.62 percent for 20 years, in order to invest about $750 million per year in transportation infrastructure. (The proposal will appear under a new number, however, after the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office certifies it for the ballot.)

Historically, the biggest source of transportation funding in Colorado has been the state gas tax. The last time that Colorado raised the gas tax was in 1991, when a gallon of regular gasoline cost just over a buck. Since then, the gas tax rate has stayed flat at 22 cents per gallon, while the price of gas has more than doubled and inflation has cut the buying power of a dollar in half. The economic squeeze play over the past 25 years has left Colorado without enough money to maintain roads and bridges, invest in public transit, or create walk-able, bike-able communities.

As SWEEP has documented in reports since 2016, state government in Colorado invests less than one-twentieth the national average in public transit, while the state and its communities face a multi-billion dollar shortfall in funding for transit and safe infrastructure for walking and biking.

This is why a broad coalition of groups, including urban mayors, rural advocacy groups, business voices, and environmental groups, came together to develop a ballot measure that would address the diverse needs across the state. The resulting proposal, Initiative 153, includes the following elements:

  • The state sales tax rate would increase by 0.62 percent for a 20-year period;
  • 40 percent of the money raised (or about $300 million per year) will go to cities and counties. These funds can be invested in local roads, public transit, or bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, based on local priorities;
  • 45 percent will go to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). CDOT will use this money to issue up to $6 billion of bonds to invest in a list of road and transit projects;
  • 15 percent, or about $112 million per year, will go to a new multi-modal options fund to be used for public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and new forms of mobility like electric car-sharing. Most of this money will go to local governments, who will have to match the funds one-to-one, doubling the multi-modal funding to more than $200 million per year.

SWEEP helped to draft the measure but held off endorsing it until CDOT decided what projects to include in the ballot list that will be funded by the agency’s 45 percent of the revenue. Much of that funding will help add managed lanes to Interstate 25 between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, and toward expanding Interstate 70 in the mountains, but we wanted to make sure that CDOT would recognize that we can’t simply build our way out of congestion.

SWEEP conducted an analysis in 2014 that found that the most cost-effective way to expand public transit in Colorado is through a network of bus rapid transit (BRT) services, where buses are given dedicated lanes that allow them to function much like rail but at a fraction of the cost. Colorado currently has three successful BRT lines: VelociRFTA in the Roaring Fork Valley; the Flatiron Flyer that connects Denver, Boulder and nearby communities; and the MAX line in Fort Collins. So, we were pleased to see that CDOT listened to input from multi-modal advocates and included a set of important BRT projects:

  • BRT on Colfax Avenue in Denver;
  • BRT on U.S. 287 linking Longmont to Broomfield and Denver;
  • BRT on state Highway 119 linking Longmont and Boulder;
  • BRT on state Highway 7 serving Erie and Lafayette;
  • BRT on West Elizabeth Avenue in Fort Collins;
  • Improving the existing U.S. 36 BRT, as well as improving the bike path that parallels highway U.S. 36.

The list also includes significant funding for pedestrian improvements on Federal Boulevard (the most dangerous street for pedestrians in Denver) and a $120 million pool for pedestrian and bicycle projects. State support of these project will be in addition to transit, bicycle and pedestrian improvements that will come from the local and multi-modal shares of the overall funding.

Together, these investments will make a meaningful difference in giving many more Colorado residents safe and convenient options to walk, bike, or take transit for many of their trips. The multi-modal options fund can also be used to support new multi-modal options enabled by technology, such as shared autonomous electric vehicles, which will allow communities to pilot new approaches. Because of all of these benefits, SWEEP is endorsing this ballot measure.

Unfortunately, a competing ballot measure, now known as Initiative 167, won’t help either highways or multi-modal transportation, but instead may just confuse voters. Initiative 167 would force the state to divert money away from education and health care and instead use it to finance bonds issued by CDOT. The measure prohibits the funds from being used for multi-modal needs, only allowing investments in expanding state highways (which studies have proven won’t solve Colorado’s transportation problems). We believe that this measure is fiscally irresponsible and could harm our state’s schools and health systems – and it misses the mark by ignoring the diverse multi-modal transportation needs of the state.

Vote yes on Initiative 153 however it will be numbered on the November ballot. It’s the plan that can truly help untangle Colorado’s transportation mess.

Will Toor

Will Toor

Will Toor is director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. He previously was a Boulder County commissioner, mayor of Boulder, and chairman of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Reach him at wtoor@swenergy.org