As a planner and resident of metro Denver, I was, frankly, a bit stunned at the margins of failure for propositions 109 and 110. All signs had pointed to one or both measures easily passing. Almost everyone, conservative and liberal, along the Front Range and especially in metro Denver, agrees that inadequate transportation funding has reached a critical point and that something significant needs to be done urgently. And I don’t recall seeing even one ad that was against both measures on principle. The momentum seemed to clearly be on the side of passing.
So the question is, what happened? A cursory glance would yield a few plausible explanations, such as voter confusion over the two competing measures and/or general voter malaise about tax increases this year, especially when viewed in the context of Amendment 73, which not only failed, but failed by double digits. But something else critical is at play here. After all, in Colorado there was a blue tsunami on November 6. The massive influx of college-educated millennial liberals and independents to the Front Range over the last decade has all but ensured that we’re a blue state now, and city and county of Denver voters in particular have been extremely generous over the last few elections with tax increases and bond measures. Democrats are typically kind to tax increases in general, especially when it comes to funding something that everyone agrees is desperately needed. And there were a lot of blue votes on the 6th. Clearly, a lot of true-blue Democrats voted resoundingly against 109 and 110.
I predict that exit polls, if they are conducted, will reveal that 109 and 110 were killed by voters of both parties who live outside of metro Denver. Despite the fact that much of the project funding in both amendments was promised to the other big cities in Colorado as well as the rural areas, there was a strong perception that 109 and 110 were basically attempts to force statewide voters to help fund Denver-based projects. Even the Colorado Springs Independent, the Westword equivalent of the Pikes Peak region and a paper that leans liberal, recommended that Pikes Peak voters vote against both measures.
Despite the fact that one would expect a majority of the additional funding from 109 and 110 to go to metro Denver simply as a function of population distribution (it makes sense that the biggest population center would receive the most money), and that most rural areas actually receive substantially more money in transportation funding from the state than they contribute and would therefore disproportionally benefit from statewide funding increases, the optics of 109 and 110 were simply bad.
So where do we go from here? If both a libertarian-backed and mainstream bipartisan-backed measure to fund transportation failed in Colorado in 2018 by big margins during a blue tsunami, I believe that a different approach now needs to be taken. An “old-school” solution, such as increasing the state gas tax, might be a viable option, especially in a single-party state government that would likely be sympathetic to the idea. But this is something that would, of course, eventually have to be put before voters in 2020 due to TABOR. And based on the 2018 election, it would be likely to go down just as spectacularly as 109 and 110.
I think the solution now has to come from a more regional approach. And the framework for such an approach has already been established and pioneered, courtesy of the most Republican-populated county in Colorado.
Transportation funding in Colorado Springs prior to 2004 was woefully inadequate. Believe it or not, in those early years of the millennium, many of the most congested arterial roads and intersections in the state were in Colorado Springs, not Denver. But that year, Pikes Peak region voters hesitantly voted to establish a “rural transportation authority,” called the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority, which authorized a 1 percent sales tax to fund road and transit improvements. The use of the revenue was earmarked by percentage (55 percent going to a voter-approved list of capital projects, 35 percent to maintenance and 10 percent to transit) and explicitly defined, and there was a ten-year sunset.
The PPRTA has been a resounding success in good, efficient, effective government. Almost all of the most significant and visible improvements in the Pikes Peak region have been a direct result of the PPRTA, and it has drastically upgraded the transportation infrastructure there in a very tangible and transparent way. The PPRTA is so successful, in fact, that almost 80 percent of Pikes Peak voters voted to renew it for another ten years in 2014. If 80 percent (!) of metro Colorado Springs voters are backing the continuance of a major tax increase, that means something.
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The Denver metro area needs to think about importing the model for PPRTA, and it needed to happen yesterday. Denver metro voters can fund their own improvements, and it would likely yield even more benefits for metro commuters in a shorter time span than 109 or 110 would have. It’s important to note that such an authority would not and should not substitute for either CDOT or RTD. Revenue for both entities would continue along current projected paths unaffected. A Denver Metro Regional Transportation Authority would simply provide funding above and beyond the current status quo and could contract with CDOT to help provide the funding for any major improvements to CDOT facilities in the metro area, with the work performed by CDOT and its contractors as it is now. For instance, the authority could chip in a significant amount of funding to help improve the beleaguered I-270 freeway corridor. The same is true with transit. The authority could help RTD pay for bus rapid transit along Colfax and ensure that it get done in an expedited manner. The authority could even throw money toward municipal projects.
On November 6, we learned that a majority of voters of both parties outside of Denver don’t want to help fund Denver transportation projects. Meanwhile, deeply conservative Colorado Springs voters have been willing and even eager to tax themselves in order to fund transportation projects within their own sphere of influence. It’s time to embrace and recognize these political realities.
In short: It’s time to try something different when it comes to transportation funding in Colorado.
Drew Willsey is a local urban and transportation planner who graduated from the University of Colorado's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program in 2013 and has worked for two local consulting firms since then; read more about him here.
Westword occasionally publishes essays and op-eds on Colorado issues. If you have one that you think would work well here, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.