Transit philosophies clash over I-70
Anything that increases the capacity of Interstate 70 will require massive amounts of money and a risk of technological problems, or both.Nobody wants to be the butt of late-night television jokes such as Denver was when the experimental baggage-handling system at Denver International Airport munched luggage and backpacks.There are several schools of thought about what must happen to get past these two humps of money and risk on I-70. One is that any mass transit is premature by several decades. While it gets steadily more busy, by standards of urban America, I-70 is only truly congested on winter and summer weekends. That congestion is expanding into weekdays, partly because of the growing Front Range population, but also because of population increases in Summit County, Eagle County, and other valleys beyond.Even so, for mass transit to operate without onerous subsidies, the population along the I-70 corridor must increase substantially, achieving a much higher density than now found. Tom Norton, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, made this point when speaking at a meeting in Silverthorne last September. Those densities, he predicted, will not exist for 30 years or more.A similar point is made by Tom Clarke, an architect in east Denver, who has spent several decades trying to figure out how to prevent the American love for cars from destroying neighborhoods. In the I-70 corridor he sees potential for a novel experiment.
Along I-70, Clarke says, he envisions an “urban-growth corridor,” one to four miles astride of a mass transit system, with taxes fueled from this growth used to defray the cost of mass transit. Equally important, he sees cars being forced to pay their own way within this corridor. Cars, he says, are ordinarily subsidized in land-use planning.”If you take autos out of the equation, your development costs go down quite a bit,” he says.A self-described urbanist, Clarke argues for a densely developed I-70 corridor as a way of reducing environmental impacts. Cities, he notes, have generally reduced impacts per person, and sprawl has high impacts.But for now, both “density” and “developers” remain strong language in mountain valleys. People generally favor low density.A good many people with second homes or weekend getaways also do not favor transportation that would make Summit County and the Eagle Valley more accessible.Wait til the guv leavesA second school of thought is that mass transit on I-70 involves mainly a waiting game waiting until Colorado Gov. Bill Owens leaves office. Owens was at least partly responsible for torpedoing a $50 million plan to use excess tax revenues left over from Colorado’s flush years to test the mountain monorail.
Owens used both backroom legislative legerdemain and then well-chosen words of public disparagement – such as “Disneyland ride” – to discourage the idea, and where he left off, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the war against Afghanistan, and anthrax scares continued. In the end, only those communities from Idaho Springs to Gypsum, abetted by Leadville, favored the publicly funded prototype. Elsewhere across the state, even in traditionally pro-transit Boulder and Aspen, thumbs were down.When Owens leaves office in early 2008, according to this theory, a new governor will be more receptive to innovation.Perhaps – but maybe not. Coloradans who use the I-70 corridor for work and play remain a distinct minority. Of metropolitan Denver’s 2.8 million people, only a few hundred thousand people ski. Any expensive – and experimental – solution will continue to be seen as a bailout of ski giants Vail Resorts and Intrawest as well as the above-average-income residents of mountain regions.And finally, it’s questionable whether a new governor will matter. Colorado is likely to remain in deep financial distress for many years to come. Do feds have the bucksThat takes us to the federal government, which has been the primary financier in virtually every major transportation link into Colorado during the last century.
Railroads? They got land and sometimes more. The feds paid 90 percent of the cost of I-70. The feds paid 80 percent of the cost of Eagle County Regional Airport and a bundle of DIA.The days of easy, or at least big, federal doles was supposedly over, but Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom suggests the federal government remains a major player, and for two reasons. First, despite the extravagant tax cuts and then massive spending in the Middle East, the federal government remains capable of coughing up a spare $3 billion or $4 billion. However, the federal government is a player in another way, says Lindstrom, whose running to represent Eagle, Summit and Lake counties in the state House of Representatives.The Federal Highway Administration is among the decision-makers on I-70, and by federal law it is required to engage the local and regional interests in the decision-making process.With a united front on mass transit – which is one reason for the new agreement among the I-70 counties, says Lindstrom – the mountain communities have greater strength with the Federal Highway Administration, which must then deal in meaningful fashion with the local concerns. This does not make mass transit a shoo-in, but it gives it a better shot in coming years.