It was mere coincidence that found me idling my way along Interstate 25 on the day I contemplated the topic for this column, as my regular day-to-day travels generally spare me the torment. Inspiration, as they say, is where one finds it.
The experience sharpens the focus on one of the most ubiquitous state policy issues, that of transportation funding. (Yes, it also causes tardiness and road rage, but let’s try and maintain this page’s sunny disposition, shall we?) Specifically, it is hard at such times not to dwell on just what can be done to increase capacity and improve traffic flow.
Transportation is one of those few responsibilities that all of us, for the most part, seem to agree legitimately falls on the shoulders of government, along with police, fire protection, and schools (though a valid and very persuasive argument exists to explore non-governmental alternatives regarding the latter). The very fact that there seems to be a universal recognition of the need to publicly finance transportation infrastructure ensures a perennial running battle over transportation policy. More specifically the intoxicating promise of dedicating more dollars to the betterment of mobility is used as a lubricant for all manner of fiscal proposals, usually tax increases of one form or another.
So it is, for instance, with Proposition CC, the ballot initiative which will ask voters to surrender the spending caps inherent in the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. The argument, offered much like the caged Hollywood villain piteously imploring the hapless rookie guard to loosen his restraints a little and open the cell door just a crack, just to allow in little light, c’mon what harm could it do, cloying dangles the promise of increased funding for — naturally — transportation.
The offer may seem tempting, but the historical record is disappointing. Referendum C, passed back in 2005, which allowed the legislature five years of shore leave from the TABOR spending limits, failed to move the needle on transportation spending appreciably. State funding for transportation out of the general fund has remained essentially flat over the last decade and a half. It took a $1.5 billion bonding measure to finance anything of note concerning major highway expansion projects. As a matter of fact, transportation spending has generally decreased as a percentage of the total state budget.
It is difficult to argue that the roughly $9 billion CDOT needs to meet its maintenance and expansion backlog is simply not there, in a budget that reached $30 billion and change this year. It is, of course, a matter of prioritizing. Like everything in government, really. I haven’t done the math, but I would venture to guess that there exists, for instance, enough money to provide every man, woman, and child in Denver with a gym membership and cello lessons, if the city decided to quit funding police and fire protection (that is not a suggestion.)
Here the transportation funding question runs up against ideological considerations. For many in state government, the issue animating transportation policy is not a humdrum utilitarian concern over easing the daily commute of thousands of individuals, but a grander vision of the reimagined society, where people have surrendered individual automobiles in favor of mass transit, bikes, and electric scooters.
There is a growing acceptance among progressives of the idea that individual ownership of automobiles is a selfishly offensive act which ought to be officially discouraged; or to the extent to which it is to be tolerated must be centrally managed. Hence the fixation on ill-conceived market contortions like Colorado’s proposed submission to the California ZEV mandate, the rule-making for which is taking place next week, the unintended consequences of which will be both regressive and counter productive in nature.
All of these alternatives are in pursuit of what, in their proponents' view, is a greater social aim, making them particularly attractive to those who view with affection the evangelizing function of government.
None of which really helps the poor souls trying to get somewhere in Denver by 9 a.m. Asking what is to be done to increase capacity and improve traffic flow assumes an affirmative answer to the far more relevant and illuminating prefatory question, should we increase capacity and improve traffic flow? For many now in state government the answer to that question is No, which bathes the issue of transportation funding in a significantly altered light.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver. He also serves as executive director of the Freedom to Drive Coalition.