Six months into the job as governor, Jared Polis has been developing a transportation plan that sounds a lot like an environmental plan, aspiring to be different than any Colorado highway administration before.
Legislators have debated for years over putting billions of extra dollars into relieving traffic jams, fixing rickety bridges and moving forward incrementally with regional transit. But Polis and his highway director are taking the conversation in a different direction, one they say will move people more efficiently and lend itself to cleaner air.
The question is: What do Coloradans think?
Last November, as voters elected Polis, they also rejected one ballot question to raise the statewide sales tax to fund roads and bridges, and another proposal that would have forced the legislature to tap the existing state budget to do so.
Polis and Shoshana Lew, his new director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, told Colorado Politics they’re not sure they’ll ask either legislators or voters for more money, at least not for asphalt to widen clogged interstates.
Instead, they say they will redraft the state’s priorities after a statewide series of public meetings, which have been largely unpublicized beyond a link on the CDOT website.
Lew said that after the "listening tour" this summer and early fall, the administration hopes to roll out its new statewide transportation plan by winter.
What that plan looks like will depend largely on what Polis’ officials hear in meetings in all 64 counties, Lew and Polis said.
Critics and skeptics, however, think Polis has his mind made up and has his heart set on a leaner and greener highway system.
Lew pushed back on Colorado Politics' suggestion that only contractors and lobbyists would show up at the meetings. She said the goal is to hear from average Coloradans.
Listening tour stops will be held at county fairs and community gatherings “to hear from real people about what it is that’s bugging them in the transportation system, where it would help their lives work better to have more invested in our transportation, and take it that way," she said.
“It’s a bottom-up approach, which is different than the way previous transportation planning has worked,” Lew said.
Off-ramp from Hickenlooper
That came across like a dig at former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Polis’ Democratic predecessor, who’s now running for president.
Hickenlooper, a moderate, tried to get Democrats and Republicans in the legislature to work out a bipartisan agreement on transportation, which they never could, drawing measured criticism from both sides who preferred he tilt in their favor.
Hickenlooper's presidential campaign just rolled out his federal climate plan that falls short of the Green New Deal favored by the more liberal wing of his party.
"These plans, while well-intentioned, could mean huge costs for American taxpayers, and might trigger a backlash that dooms the fight against climate change," Hickenlooper's plan states about the Green New Deal and other such liberal mandates.
Polis, by contrast, was one of the greenest members of Congress until he opted for the governor's race. He kicked off his campaign to lead Colorado on July 4, 2017 with a pledge to move the state toward 100% electricity production through renewable energy by 2040. His first executive order as governor aimed to boost the availability of electric vehicles in Colorado.
Asked about Hickenlooper's commitment to mass transit, Lew walked back, a little, her appraisal of past Colorado transportation planning.
“A lot of the work happened during the Hickenlooper administration,” she said, pointing to transit expansion by metro Denver's Regional Transportation District and the $484 million redevelopment of Denver Union Station as a transportation hub, the product of public-private partnerships.
“There’s been progress, but it’s fundamentally very hard to change the way people move," Lew said, "and I think part of what we’re seeing is Colorado is growing fast and the systems to move people around these populated areas has to be a little different than places that are not as dense.”
A recent state audit, however, questioned some of CDOT's spending and transparency practices during the Hickenlooper administration. Lew talked a lot about being accountable for the dollars the department receives before asking for more.
This spring the legislature put about $300 million more in CDOT's budget. Most of it was one-time money. And lawmakers are eyeing a ballot question next year to ask voters for permission to borrow money to pay for the state’s top-priority list of transportation projects.
That "Tier 1" list includes 74 projects across the state, including clogged stretches of interstates 25 and 70, and regional projects such as improving draining and intersections of U.S. 24 from Colorado Springs to Woodland Park. The projects' combined cost totals more than $3.1 billion.
Just under Tier 1 in priority is Tier 2, made up of 54 other projects with a total project cost of about $6.6 billion, according to CDOT's projections under the Hickenlooper administration.
Polis and Lew, in their separate interviews, were appreciative of the new money the legislature provided this year, but offered little support for pumping more budget dollars into transportation.
And Polis is tearing up the Tier 1 and 2 lists to reset the priorities.
“Out of this process, I think it will help us to [figure out] what resources we might need in the future that we don’t have right now,” Lew said. “For us, the focus at the moment is not starting with the question ‘How we get more money?’ but starting with the question … ‘What vision are we as the people of Colorado building for what we want out of the transportation system so that we can travel safely and efficiently?’”
The administration, however, is preaching to a state whose residents roll in their own vehicles. In 2016, only 9.4% of Denver households were without a vehicle. In Highlands Ranch, that number falls to 1.5% of vehicle-less households, according to the U.S. Census.
Lew compared developing an aspirational state transportation plan to selling a house.
“You wouldn’t start by talking to people about how to take out a mortgage,” Lew said. “You would start by showing them some pictures of houses they might want, making them dream and aspire, so they can live in the place they want.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with the transportation system, to turn it from how do we take out a mortgage to talking about where do we want to live.”
Hear that train a'comin'
Lew, a former Obama administration finance official who most recently was chief operating officer for the Rhode Island transportation agency, vowed that Colorado will see construction begin on a 173-mile commuter rail system along the Front Range by the end of Polis’ first term in 3-1/2 years.
“We are taking real steps and looking for Front Range rail, mobility and different transit options up and down the I-25 corridor,” she said. “The more people move here, you’re not going to be able to build your way out of congestion. We are adding capacity on I-25, but it’s not going to be enough to accommodate the population that’s moving here, particularly north of the Denver metro area.”
How much that train will cost and where that money comes from, however, is still a mystery.
“We will look forward to working with the legislature next session and others to make it happen, if we can find a feasible route to get it done,” Polis told Colorado Politics.
Does the governor have a clear vision for what the long-term funding sources for transportation might be?
“Well, for one, for the rail part of it, it will be financing based on counting the value of future ticket sales, so you’ll be able to use solid ridership numbers to calculate some of the future proceeds,” Polis said. “This legislative session, great progress was made doing the most with what we have, which obviously means de-Brucing initiative on the ballot this fall, which will provide additional funding for education and for transportation.”
Polis was referring to Proposition CC, which lawmakers placed on the ballot this November. Voters will be asked to give up their future refunds under the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (championed by tax activist Douglas Bruce, hence the reference to "de-Brucing"). The money in good economic years -- about $65 million this year, for example -- normally would be refunded to taxpayers.
If Proposition CC passes, that windfall instead would be kept by the state and split equally between K-12 schools, higher education and transportation. That is, unless future legislatures decide to spend it elsewhere.
Last month, the Polis administration issued a request for proposals for a study on a Front Range rail line parallel to Interstate 25. The legislature created a commission to be in charge of the quest, and endowed it with a $2.5 million budget in 2018.
“These things have to go together," Lew said. "What we talk about a lot is giving people choices, and we at CDOT are focused on doing just that.”
How fast on traffic?
Meanwhile, people are sitting in traffic jams each day on I-25, and weekend snarls on Interstate 70 are legendary among skiers, a load-bearing pillar of the state’s tourism economy.
Lew and Polis pointed to work that’s already taking place on I-25 along the Front Range.
“We have a great deal of capital funding we have to spend right now,” Lew said. “In looking at the priorities, the first question is, ‘How do we get the most bang for our buck with those dollars the federal and state government of Colorado provide us to make sure we’re getting the best return?
"Could that lead to funding needs where we might ask for future funding? Absolutely, but the goal is not to start with the question of how do we get more money but start with the question of what are people trying to get out of transportation?”
Coupled with future transit, it will go a long way to relieve traffic, she said.
Asked if his train plan could ever help out in the mountains, Polis said maybe.
“We always want to explore the feasibility of that,” he said on a break from a meeting with fellow governors in Vail. “I think it’s an engineering challenge in addition to being an economic challenge, but we’re hopeful new technologies will enable a creative approve to the Interstate 70 corridor.”
In a Q&A with the Vail Daily this month, Polis evaded the question of a ballot issue to put more money into solving the high country’s highest transportation priority.
“We’re doing what we can with what we have,” he told the newspaper. “I think two measures I would point you to that will help on [Interstate] 70. One is, we created a ticketable offense for passing a snowplow in V formation — the cause of numerous accidents ... over the years. The second one is around the use of snow tires if you’re not a four-wheel drive vehicle. Again, [that's] another cause of cars that are off the road or unable to move.
“So we’re hoping to, through better traffic safety, provide some additional help to help the traffic flow quicker through just as we did when we worked for the fire suppression system in Eisenhower Tunnel, which we got federally funded a few years back, decreasing time that that need to be closed."
When Polis introduced Lew as the new director last December, he said, “CDOT has a big job ahead as we focus on reducing traffic.”
What, specifically, was he talking about?
“We’re talking about all of the above,” Lew said. “Congestion in the air and congestion on the roads are part and parcel of the same phenomenon. We need to improve the roadways for people to drive but we also need to provide more options as the population in Colorado grows.”
Lew acknowledged that time is money when it comes to transportation problems. The longer problems are put off, she said, the worse they become -- and the more expensive they become as costs for raw materials, labor and financing rise.
That’s where critics agree with the Polis administration.
But that’s also a source of frustration for West Slope advocates such as Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.
There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel on years of under-financed Colorado transportation planning, he said.
“It just goes back to common sense,” Scott said. “Just use common sense. Take trip on I-70 to Vail. The only thing you can do is widen those roads to get more volume on cars through. There are no rail options. There are no helicopter options. There are no monorail options. You’ve got to have more lanes for more options. End of discussion.
"The question is how to we work politically and environmentally to get that accomplished," he said. “That’s what we should be talking about.”
Scott noted that listening tours on transportation have become the norm. He thinks Polis already knows what he wants to do -- make dramatic changes to the transportation landscape -- and using the public meetings as political justification.
“Some people are told in advance to be there,” he said. “They’re told what to say in advance, so they can do it in front of the press, and then [the Polis administration] can say, ‘Look at all these solutions we came up with.’”
A Front Range solution
Scott said the Polis administration isn’t listening on his tour. It’s selling.
“You’re trying to sell your political ideas and ideology,” he said. “You’re not out there trying to come up with solutions, in my humble opinion.”
He said the existing problems on the Front Range are right outside the governor’s windshield, not in some poorly-attended meeting in a rural county that will never see a commuter rail car pass through.
“Sure, they want to talk about what’s going on all the rest of the state,” he said. “Sure they do. But what they’re really worried about is what’s going on on the Front Range. The solutions are there staring you in the face, and you want to talk about it some more? Address them and get it done. You don’t need to waste six months putting on meetings nobody goes to.”
Meanwhile, the state highways lag farther behind and continue to depend on gas taxes and vehicle fees, with little help from the state budget -- money many Democrats would rather spend on education and social services.
“We don’t have a line item in our budget for transportation,” Scott said. “We do not. Make the legislature fix that. That’s our job. Tell us to do our damn job.”
The idea that the state doesn’t need to invest more money in transportation, he said, is a bad idea that “we’ve had for 10 or 12 years now. Republicans and Democrats have ignored the fact we did need more money. And that’s part of the reason we have the problems we have now."
Polis’ tilt toward greener vehicles and Front Range commuter rail are environmental solutions, but not a traffic relievers that are needed today, Scott said.
“Just putting electric vehicles on the road is just going to replace the same vehicles that are already there,” Scott said. “It doesn’t do a damn thing but play to your philosophy that you have to have more electric vehicles, or whatever their nirvana is with EVs.”
On the horizon
Transportation advocates worry that Coloradans will look at the one-time money lawmakers approved this year and possibly gain a few million dollars more in some surplus years, if voters in November torpedo TABOR for schools and roads.
But that’s not nearly enough money, given the $9 billion in needs Polis is reshuffling.
Sandra Hagen Solin, of the state business coalition Fix Colorado Roads, gave the state a two rating on a scale of one to 10 to solving its funding needs.
“We have a long way to go and it’s on us to make certain voters continue to understand the challenge we have before us and their part in any solution,” she said.
And what happens if lawmakers don't appropriate big money again next year?
“Every year we don’t do the hard work, make the hard decisions, we lose more ground and the $9 billion [shortfall] grows with construction inflation and costs,” she said.
She said her coalition is grateful for the incremental wins on road funding the past few legislative sessions, but the business community would continue to push for a politically viable, financially stable approach to addressing transportation with money from the state budget, bonding for major projects and new sources of revenue.
Polis’ idea of taking a fresh look at transportation priorities, however, is a prudent idea, Solin said.
“It was wonderful to work with Gov. Hickenlooper and his leadership team on funding transportation,” she said. “While transportation wasn’t among his highest priorities to tackle in his first year, Gov. Polis and his team understand the challenge and are actively engaged with us in discussions about how we address the challenge as a priority in the coming year.
“What we’ve all observed in Gov. Polis is that when he’s committed to something, he does what he can to drive it forward. We see funding our transportation system as a place where Gov. Polis can dig in.”
Polis said there are no quick fixes. Asked what his administration could do right away to address traffic questions, he said, essentially, be patient.
“If you’re talking about what can be done right now, then certainly encouraging and working with local communities around giving commuters more choices with buses and other forms of commuting, working with employers to find affordable housing solutions closer to where people work,” he said.
“Road construction isn’t today, tomorrow or next week, it takes a little time.”
Ernest Luning of Colorado Politics contributed.