Guest Commentary: Coloradans need more transportation choices
Innovations in auto safety, connected vehicles, and driverless vehicles will transform the use of roads in the next few decades, likely allowing many more vehicles to travel in the existing road space. (Denver Post file)
This spring, the Colorado legislature wisely rejected a transportation bonding proposal that would have taken funding from maintaining existing roads and bridges, redirecting it to pay for $4 billion worth of new projects, primarily large-scale highway expansion. Despite its rejection, I am grateful to its authors for helping fuel an important discussion about how to adequately fund transportation in our state.
The plain truth is, we can’t solve our transportation congestion problems by shortchanging maintenance to build bigger highways. Many of our past funding efforts have focused on highway expansion, with a small percentage set aside for public transit and little or none for making our communities safe for walking and biking. This approach will not work anymore. To quote Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) executive director Shailen Bhatt, “We are using a 20th century approach on a 21st century problem.”
Just expanding highways does little to address congestion. While traffic engineers often model a world in which travel demand is fixed and widening roads makes them uncongested, in the real world wider roads induce more travel demand, and the new lanes quickly fill up. The most glaring local example is the T-REX project on Interstate 25 through Denver. As CDOT describes on its I-70 east Web page, new lanes on T-REX were congested within five years of construction. Almost $1 billion of new lanes brought little long-term benefit. The only new road lanes in busy areas that actually remain uncongested over time are managed lanes like the ones going in on U.S. 36, where the new lanes are limited to buses, high occupancy vehicles, and toll paying single occupant vehicles.
New technologies are reducing the need for highway expansion. Innovations in auto safety, connected vehicles, and driverless vehicles will transform the use of roads in the next few decades, likely allowing many more vehicles to travel in the existing road space. Even in the shorter term, new technology gives us many opportunities to use our existing infrastructure more effectively.
At the same time, young people today are far more multimodal than this age cohort used to be: Nearly 70 percent regularly use multiple transportation options beyond driving. Colorado residents as a whole have started to drive less, with a 10 percent decline in per capita miles driven between 2005 and 2013. Poll after poll show that Coloradans want good public transit, safe and comfortable ways to walk and bike around their communities, and well-maintained roads — not just new and larger highways.
The Colorado Transportation Coalition conducted a poll in 2014 that asked people what their priorities were for new transportation investment. Across the state, the top priorities were safe routes for kids to walk and bike to school, better public transit, better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, followed by safer roads.
CDOT now describes its mission as increasing choices in travel (by single-occupant vehicle, carpool or transit); increasing mobility by operational improvements to make existing roads work better; using pricing in express lanes to offer reliable travel times; and promoting options for walking and biking. This vision — giving people real choices in how they travel, not locking them into having to drive for every trip — is the key to making our transportation system work as Colorado grows.
Yet discussion at the legislature remains largely stuck in outdated approaches, focusing almost exclusively on how we can generate more money to widen highways. This is the wrong conversation. Instead, let’s explore how we can fund a transportation system that gives all Coloradans meaningful transportation choices.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Toor is director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP). He is a former Boulder mayor and former member of the Denver Regional Council of Governments.
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