Toor: State funding for public transit absolutely needed

Author: Will Toor - March 5, 2017 - Updated: March 4, 2017

Will Toor
Will Toor

I am writing to refute Randall O’Toole’s recent guest opinion column claiming that there is no need for state funding for public transit. His opinion criticizes a recent report I authored for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project showing that Colorado invests less than one cent per day per person of state funds in public transit, twenty times lower than the national average. Despite O’Toole’s claims, other states provide significant funding to their analogues of RTD — Transfort in Fort Collins, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, or Mountain Metro in Colorado Springs — even though their local agencies also generate funding from local taxes.

Discussions are underway among Colorado’s Republican and Democratic leaders about referring a measure to voters to increase taxes to invest more in transportation. There are many reasons why this effort should focus broadly on mobility infrastructure and services, include funding for public transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, not just for expanding highways.

First, it is folly to believe that simply investing in widening highways will solve our transportation problems. When we widen a highway, there is a short time during which congestion does drop. But then people start responding to the new capacity by switching trips to rush hour from less congested times, taking more trips, and over time land uses change to add more development along the highway. Within a few years induced traffic fills the road. T-Rex is a great example — within 4 years of completion, congestion was as bad as it was before construction started.

Second, Colorado’s needs are diverse. Some of our challenges require improvements to major highways. But most of our transportation challenges are very local, addressing how we get to work or school safely, quickly and comfortably. In some small towns, the most important needs are to make the highway that serves as main street safer for all users, installing safe sidewalks and crossings. In many cities, opportunities to expand roads are few, because there are already homes and businesses right next to them, and the only way to improve transportation is by creating better transit service and safer ways to walk and bike.

The Front Range Travel Survey found that a quarter of all car trips were less than 1 mile, and over half were less than 3 miles. When communities provide safe, pleasant ways to walk and bike, many of these short trips are no longer made by car. In many rural areas, the biggest needs are shoulders to make the roads safer, better maintenance and plowing, and shuttles to get elderly residents to medical care. Shouldn’t we address the diverse needs of the whole state?

Third, these needs are significant. Last summer a major study was released that found that unfunded needs for public transit, missing sidewalks, safe shoulders, and safe bike-lanes totaled over $1 billion per year. This is how much it would take to improve public transit over the whole state, so that you can have real choices and options in all our cities, not just the Denver metro area, Fort Collins and a few others. It would allow us to provide high quality regional service — whether bus service between the towns in Northern Colorado or rapid transit along I-25. It would help address the 6,000 miles of missing sidewalks in our cities and towns. And it would provide safe routes to school for every town in the state.

Fourth, it is clear that Colorado voters want public transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. One statewide poll found that over 60 percent thought that transit was the best way to improve transportation in Colorado. A poll this January found that more than 70 percent of voters are more likely to support a tax increase if it includes funding for public transit and bicycle and pedestrian improvements in addition to highways.

Randall O’Toole’s claim that Colorado does not need funding for public transit because these needs are fully funded at the local level is wildly off base. Colorado needs more money for transportation — whether highways, sidewalks, senior shuttles or better bus routes. Any tax measure should address the diverse needs of all our communities.

Will Toor

Will Toor

Will Toor is director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. He previously was a Boulder County commissioner, mayor of Boulder, and chairman of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Reach him at wtoor@swenergy.org