Governor Bill Ritter’s Transportation panel recently launched a five-week, 25-meeting community outreach effort to raise awareness about Colorado’s transportation funding crisis, and engage the public in a debate about possible solutions. At least that’s what the press release said.
Since the biggest roadblock standing in the way of the proposed train to the mountains along I-70 that I wrote about in "Rail Roaded," a March 2007 article, is the several billion dollars it would cost, I decided to check out the meeting at the Central Denver Public Library yesterday to see what kind of progress the panel had made on putting together a tax or user-fee package it could sell to voters or the legislature.
But that’s not what this 25-meeting campaign was about. No, as Carla Perez from the Governor’s office explained, it had been sparked by a little poll Move Colorado conducted earlier this summer that found 63 percent of people in the state don’t think there’s a problem with the transportation system. After the transportation debates last session in the legislature, the transportation panel’s report released in January, and the media coverage of both, those poll results came as a bit of a shock. So Ritter decided his panel still had some public education work to do.
"People aren’t likely to talk about or support solutions if they don’t understand there’s a problem," Perez said.
Thus the presentation given by Doug Aden, a co-chair of the panel, was all about the problem. First, he went around the room to find out who he was talking to. Not surprisingly, with the exception of a few transportation geeks who attend every meeting they can ride their bike to, everybody was there on business: reporters, elected officials, agency staff and elected officials, business and environmental association representatives, etc. Nobody in the room was likely to have answered no to a polling question about whether the transportation system was in trouble.
But Aden went ahead and preached to the converted, and his talk, littered with photos of Colorado’s crumbling bridge infrastructure, was just as scary as any sermon on Hell, even though he was merely repeating what the panel had put in its report to the governor. The state has 126 structurally deficient bridges and enough money to fix four or five a year. A few people in the room gasped when he showed a photo of the cracking expansion joint underneath the I-70 viaduct that 170,000 cars cross daily.
"Are they just going to scare people?" the girl next to me whispered before walking out of the meeting.
Aden went on.
Forty percent of Colorado roads are in poor condition, he said, and CDOT only has enough money to maintain half of the statewide system. If we don’t do something to increase transportation funding, we will have inadequate maintenance and no new construction. And to fund the kind of multi-modal transportation network the panel envisions for Colorado’s future, the state will need to raise an additional $1.5 million annually.
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So, asked Peter Kenney of Civic Results, to begin the Q&A session: "How do we do a better job of raising public awareness? What if residents of the community were to see a presentation like this?"
People commented that they thought the public would really respond to a presentation like this. Nobody seemed to think a 25-meeting campaign to talk about how to raise public awareness was a little silly. Would they next launch an actual public-awareness campaign and expect the general public to turn out for those meetings?
Finally, Commerce City mayor Paul Natale spoke up with an edge of annoyance in his tone. "We need to get out and fill these rows with citizens," he said. "The way we could do it is with a terrific ad campaign." He suggested scary bridge pictures like the ones Aden had just shown. "I go to a lot of these meetings and it’s all the same people. All you hear is, 'This is what’s wrong. This is how much it’s going to cost.' We need a leader, somebody to step forward and say we can do this. That’s the piece that’s missing."
Colorado Department of Transportation director Russ George concluded the meeting by first assuring the audience that the state’s bridges were not going to collapse beneath them, then saying that the state knows it needs to step up the pace toward finding a solution to its transportation-funding crisis. "That’s the governor’s goal. He knows it’s time," he said. "We’re now ready to jump to light speed on outreach... Eventually, the conversation will go to the next level. We’re confident there will be a strong conversation at the legislature this winter." -- Jessica Centers