Two transportation measures are on Colorado’s ballot. Here’s how one could pay for rural buses, mountain bike trails and urban sidewalks.

Prop. 109 borrows money for specific road projects; Prop. 110 raises the sales tax for some flexible local spending beyond roads and bridges.

A group of concerned citizens and city and state employees walk under I-70 as they take a tour of the sidewalks along Peoria Street in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver on Oct. 30, 2018. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

Earlier this week, on a day threatening rain, a Denver police cruiser with its lights flashing drove slowly down Peoria Street in Montbello escorting a line of nearly 30 people walking single file.

“I hope it rains today just for you all to see what we live with,” Pam Jiner said to the group as she looked at the gray sky. “You go to work, it’s sunny. You come home, it’s a blizzard.”

Jiner, an organizer for GirlTrek, a national nonprofit focused on improving the health of African-American women and girls by creating walkable communities, led the group of residents and city and state employees on a “walking audit” of the area’s sidewalks. A few carried notebooks or cameras, but most shoved their hands in their coat pockets for warmth as they walked on the crumbling asphalt or dirt paths.

“Montbello turns 52 years old this year, and we’ve never had a complete sidewalk network along Peoria Street in the community,” Denver City Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents the neighborhood, said over the noise of passing cars.

Jiner has lived in Montbello for 45 years and has done several of these walking audits now. She and other neighborhood advocates have succeeded in getting the attention of city and transportation officials to install signs, improve drainage, and build crosswalks along with some sidewalk installation. But work remains. Jiner said she’s advocating for long-overdue equity in her community, and as they walked, she pointed out curbs that are too high or sidewalks too narrow for wheelchairs. She pointed to dirt paths and flattened weeds where pedestrians have veered off the sidewalk, creating shorter, sometimes safer, paths.

The tour of this busy section of Montbello took place on Tuesday, a week before Election Day. This year’s Nov. 6 ballot holds two transportation funding measures, Proposition 109 and Proposition 110, each of which seeks a different way to address Colorado’s $9 billion backlog for infrastructure projects.

Prop. 109, backed by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, would borrow $3.5 billion through bonding for up to 66 specific highway projects and limit the total repayment amount to $5.2 billion over the next two decades. Colorado would have to come up with money to repay the borrowed amount and could only do so without raising taxes or fees. The measure has no money for anything but transportation projects, such as roads, highways, and bridges. Critics say the repayments will siphon money from schools or healthcare. Proponents say there will be enough revenue to go around.

Prop. 110 would increase Colorado’s sales tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent for 20 years, raising an estimated $767 million a year. Of that, roughly $115 million a year — an amount some critics say is nowhere near enough and others say is too much — would be dedicated to other means of travel, such as bus routes, bike paths, sidewalks, curb cuts, and money for operating costs. The measure would also allow Colorado to borrow up to $6 billion next year to pay for transportation projects. The total repayment would be limited to $9.4 billion.

Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the major business group behind Prop. 110 and its “Let’s Go Colorado” campaign, says including money for projects other than roads and bridges in the measure was “pragmatic recognition” of how people get around and the way technology is changing transportation.  

“Coloradans really like choice and options,” Brough says. “We should have some recognition for that.”

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As Election Day draws near, what little polling that has been done revealed voter skittishness around a sales tax increase. One early October poll by the respected Republican firm Magellan Strategies found 52 percent of voters supporting Prop. 109 and 35 percent in support of Prop. 110.

The Let’s Go Colorado campaign has raised nearly $7 million through its committee called Coloradans for Coloradans, according to state campaign finance data. Its largest donor is the Colorado Construction Industry, which gave nearly $2 million. Other top donors include the American Council of Engineering Companies, which gave $80,000, and the concrete and cement company Cemex, which pitched in $75,000.

The Fix Our Damn Roads campaign has raised nearly half a million in cash for its effort, state campaign finance data show. The Independence Institute gave nearly $500,000, some of that from in-kind contributions labeled as office supplies and equipment. The Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, a group that helps elect Republicans in Colorado, gave $150,000, much of it, too, in in-kind contributions for ads. Colorado Concern, a group of state business leaders, gave $50,000, and the Anschutz Corporation gave $15,000.

Outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has been airing TV commercials in favor of Prop. 110, but the Democrat running to replace him, Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, says he hasn’t taken a position on it. Polis opposes Prop. 109 for not having a dedicated repayment system and adding to the state’s debt.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Walker Stapleton opposes Prop. 110 and is backing Prop. 109. On the stump, he has said his own hopes for transportation wouldn’t “misplace” taxpayer funds “in multimodal transportation, which just means bike lanes and public transit and solar-powered motorcycles.”

On Tuesday in Montbello, home to about 35,000 people — most of them Latino — with household incomes below Denver’s median, some in the group held out hope for Prop. 110. The biggest concern was that the money wouldn’t flow fast enough and that it wouldn’t trickle down deep enough for communities to have a true say in how it should be spent.

So, how would Prop. 110 address multimodal? Let’s start with the basics.

Pam Jiner leads a tour of the sidewalks along Peoria Street in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver on Oct. 30, 2018. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

What is ‘multimodal’ anyway?

The word basically means “choice in travel,” whether that’s by bike, foot or public transit.

In other words, these projects can range from a bike lane in Boulder, a pedestrian bridge in Ridgeway, a hiking trail in Fort Collins, bus rapid transit in Denver, a widened road shoulder for cyclists or pedestrians in Wray, or a white passenger van carrying Grandma to the doctor along a country road in Fort Morgan.

Does Colorado need more funding for multimodal?

A broad coalition of transit, bike, pedestrian and health-equity advocates sure thinks so. A 2015 Urban Land Institute survey of “housing, transportation and community,” found that 52 percent of Coloradans said they are drawn to areas where they would have less dependence on a car. “That is especially true of Latinos, low-income Coloradans, and those living in cities,” the report found.

According to a 2016 study by the CoPIRG Foundation, a public interest consumer group, Colorado could benefit from $1 billion per year in funding for multimodal transportation over the next two decades.

From that report:

“Coloradans from all backgrounds and all parts of the state will benefit whether it is a family in Denver who can ride a bus to the ski areas; or an aging resident of Craig who needs to get to a critical medical appointment 100 miles away without a car; or for a child in Greeley to safely walk to school; or for a bicyclist in Longmont to commute to Boulder; or for residents of Aurora to have access to employment opportunities from Louisville to Highlands Ranch riding fast and frequent bus rapid transit.”

Non-driving forms of transportation save Coloradans money and are good for individual health and the environment, the study states. “With 2.4 million more people pouring into Colorado in the next 25 years, transit, biking and walking are important transportation options to combat congestion,” it reads.

Prop. 110 would not generate anything close to $1 billion per year, but it would be a “total game changer,” increasing the current amount the state now allocates for multimodal nearly five-fold, says Ann Rajewski, executive director of the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies.

Connie Cole, who runs a nonprofit transportation service called Neighbor to Neighbor based in Chaffee County, anchored by Salida and Buena Vista, recalls starting out 15 years ago with one van and a volunteer. She now has 10 shuttle buses, 12 employees, a city-to-city bus route, and an office. “We just grew and grew and grew and grew,” she says. “So that in and of itself will tell you … transportation down here in Chaffee County was a need — is a need.”

Last year, Cole ran 15,000 transport shuttle trips around her county, and 52 percent of the ridership was under the age of 60, she says. She estimates a third of her ridership is for medical reasons, another third is shopping — “it doesn’t matter if it’s the liquor store or the pot store, we don’t care” — and trips to post offices make up a sizeable chunk. “People go to the beauty shop, they go to the bank,” she says. “Then there is some recreation in there a little bit.”

Cole gets funding annually through a Colorado Department of Transportation application process, which she says brings in about $100,000. In CDOT meetings she has attended over the years, she says she’s heard how other towns would like to start some kind of transportation service, but there just isn’t enough funding to go around.

How is multimodal currently funded in Colorado?

The only real dedicated source of revenue at the state level for multimodal transportation is $15 million per year, which comes from vehicle registration fees and was born out of legislation in 2009 known as FASTER.

Colorado’s transportation department also can dip into the state’s general fund under certain circumstances, and when it does, some of it must go to public transit. That only happened once between 2009 and 2016, according to a CoPIRG study in 2016. “Compared to other states, the level of state support for public transit in Colorado is one of the worst in the country,” the study found.

This past legislative session, a second transfer did come out of the general fund for multimodal, this one for $97 million, says David Krutsinger, director of CDOT’s Transit and Rail program. Of that, 85 percent will go to local projects and 15 percent to state projects.

Colorado’s cities and counties also can fund local transit. In deep-red Sterling, for example, voters in 2007 approved the creation of a transportation authority and an increase in the local sales tax to pay for a bus line called the Prairie Express.

According a letter by a coalition of transit, walking, bicycle and health-equity advocates sent to Denver’s City Council in late September, at the current rate of spending — about $5 million per year — it would take 100 years to finish 240 miles of bike lanes and 2,000 miles of missing and substandard sidewalks in the city.

Students walking home from Swansea Elementary. (Photo by Phil Cherner for The Colorado Independent)

So, if Prop. 110 passes, how would this new funding flow — and how would it balance rural versus urban needs?

The pie can be sliced in a couple different ways.

First, out of the expected $767 million per year in new tax revenue, 40 percent — about $307 million — would go directly to cities and counties and is largely intended for local roads. If local governments so choose, they can direct some of that money to non-road spending or match funding for multimodal projects. “There is no limitation on how they can spend the money,” CDOT’s Krutsinger said. “But practically speaking, all are desperate for money to fill potholes and widen roads.” Only a few communities, he said, might choose to spend some of that money on bike lanes and sidewalks.

CDOT would take a 45 percent cut — about $345 million — for its highway program. The remaining 15 percent, $115 million a year, goes to the multimodal pot.

That pot then gets divvied up again. About $30 million of the $115 million comes off the top for local bonding projects, “the stuff people can buy and build” as Krutsinger puts it. Communities would have to commit to a 50 percent match. After many meetings across the state, those capital projects have already been selected and include, among several others, a transit hub in Manitou Springs, renovating a transit center in Steamboat Springs, rebuilding a transit center in Breckenridge, and implementing rapid bus transit along Colfax Avenue in Denver. (You can find a complete list here.)

About $13 million a year would go to CDOT for its Bustang commuter bus line, which runs between Denver and Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Colorado Springs, and the expansion of its Bustang Outrider bus service, which would ferry people between Pueblo and such places as Alamosa and Lamar.

Once all the slicing and dicing is done, about $72 million per year is left, and that would be distributed to local governments, which would be free to spend it for any multimodal use, such as local bus and senior van service costs, or bike paths and sidewalks.

“There is a great amount of flexibility built into it, and for the first time in a very long time it will be at the discretion of local and regional entities,” Krutsinger said. “Local governments can decide what their needs are.”

As for how the $72 million per year is going to be spread around the state, CDOT will create a committee made up of its transit and transportation advisory committees, as well as members of advocacy organizations representing bicyclists, pedestrians and those focused on public health. That committee will be responsible for advising the state Transportation Commission on how it should fairly divvy up the money. Funds will flow to various regional entities — in Denver, it will be the Denver Regional Council of Governments — which will, in turn, pass the money to local cities and counties.

Michael Snow, a CDOT transit infrastructure specialist, says the distribution formula will take into account not only the total population of an area, but also how many elderly and low-income residents it has and how many households don’t have a car. It will also include transit ridership.  

The formula is to be weighted to consider potential benefits for those who rely on flexible, regular public transit, namely: seniors, whose use of public transit allows them to remain living at home, rather than moving to a facility; rural residents, who live in homes scattered many miles from town; people with disabilities; and children who need safe rides to and from school.  

Rajewski, of CASTA, called the development of the distribution formula “a kind of art and science together.”

Bob Held, the head of the Area Agency on Aging for the Northeastern Colorado Association of Local Governments, says he’s still sorting out his thoughts on Prop. 110. The agency won’t get any direct funding, but many of the people it serves use the public transit system, County Express. County Express operates a small fleet of vans that travel long distances to pick up riders, and demand for rides outstrips the supply of vans and drivers.

Related: Sixty two buses, 60 drivers, 9,000 square miles: What happens when demand for public transit in rural Colorado exceeds supply?

“I just have a lot of concerns,” Held says.  “People here have been passed by for years and years and years.”

How the money will be distributed if Prop. 110 passes is critical, he says. “There are more people in Denver and in the mountain areas, the biggest tourist areas. So, those … areas will be paying more money in sales taxes and some of that money will come out here, but, by far, they will get a bigger share. I understand that.”

But, he says, if the formula ends up largely based upon population, “then I don’t see how it will make a significant enough difference to allow us to do what needs to get done.”

To this, Krutsinger says that incorporating population and, in particular, who makes up that population — whether they are elderly or disabled or low-income — “protects rural areas. If we were to rely solely on ridership, 80 percent of the money would go to one place: RTD.”

Also keeping an eye on the distribution are some of those who joined Tuesday’s walk in Montbello.

“Everything, it needs to come to the community because each community is different,” said Ann White, chair of Montbello 20/20, a neighborhood organization. “What works in another community, in Park Hill, will probably not work in Montbello.”

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Suzette Mallette, director of the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, says it would like to build out 13 regional trail areas, like one to connect Fort Collins to Loveland. On the transit side, she likes how flexible multimodal dollars could go toward operating costs. “Operating money is where transit organizations have always, always had an issue,” she says.

Greeley Evans Transit, for instance, can go to the Federal Transit Administration and win a grant that helps pay for 80 percent of a new bus, she says, but there’s nothing out there to help pay for the overhead of running it, like paying drivers. So flexibility to use multimodal dollars for operating costs would be a “huge deal,” she says.

In Southwest Colorado, Prop. 110 money could allow Durango to beef up its transit and offer more routes at more times, says Miriam Gillow-Wiles, director of the Southwest Colorado Council on Governments.

“There’s not a lot of transit out here,” she says. “We’re a five-county area that’s bigger than the state of Connecticut with 100,000 people in it. So transit is damn near impossible to run with such a low population density.” There are transit agencies out there, she says, but they struggle with funding.

County Express bus driver Brenda Peterson (Photo by Phil Cherner)

What are the criticisms of Prop. 110?

Well, for one, it’s a tax increase.

Because of Colorado’s revenue-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights constitutional amendment, governments — state or local — in Colorado cannot raise taxes without the approval of voters at the ballot box.

Even for someone like Debbie Cooper, who relies on the bus system in Colorado Springs, voting for a sales tax increase is a nonstarter. Cooper, 58, says she has to take two buses to and from work each day and has been doing so for two years. The last bus runs at 6:15 in the evening, which takes her to a community college where she hails a second bus home. If she misses that one, she’s stuck. “I’ve had to walk home quite a few times from the college,” she says.

Cooper says she’d like to see buses on the city’s outskirt routes run longer and on the weekends, but as far as paying more in sales tax for that to happen, well, she says, she thought marijuana and lottery money would be going to transportation.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers joins Cooper in that skepticism. In 2015, Suthers successfully championed a $0.62 percent sales tax increase, even in the heavily conservative area, to fix the city’s crumbling roads. But Suthers does not want to raise sales taxes statewide to fix the roads and is opposed to Prop. 110. (He supports Prop. 109.)

“It would raise the total sales tax in places like Commerce City to 10 percent,” he has said of Prop. 110. “As a mayor myself I oppose this idea because it will raise sales taxes so high that if a city needs a local sales tax increase for anything from essential public infrastructure to more fire or police services, or new parks, it won’t be able to.”

Suthers is a Republican, but criticism is not limited to anti-tax conservative voices.

Dom Nozzi, a lifetime walker, cyclist and transit commuter — a multimodal advocate — has spent nearly four decades in academic and professional experience in transportation issues. He opposes Prop. 110 because of the new money going to widen roads. He penned a recent broadside against the measure in The Boulder Daily Camera, saying he thinks it will bring about further sprawl, congestion, pollution and more traffic fatalities while creating a new burden on local governments, which will have to pay for maintaining all the new infrastructure.

He likens the money for multimodal in the measure to “pocket change” and calls the whole initiative a Faustian bargain. “We’ve poured billions of public dollars into making cars happy for the past century, and the outcome has been terrible,” he wrote. “I will do everything in my power to fight against this measure. Enough is enough.”

Krutsinger says he thinks much of the criticism of Prop. 110 coming out of Boulder and the northwest Denver metro area is rooted in underfunding of the FasTracks Northwest commuter rail line and the desire among some local government officials to see it included among its projects.

“If the Northwest rail line was on the ballot,” he says, “it becomes the only transit project that can fit within this measure and it’s just not appropriate to have all the funding for across the state solve that one problem when the needs are everywhere.” Also, he adds, nothing precludes local governments from using their share of the larger 40 percent pot of money earmarked for local governments for projects other than roads.

Rachel Lorenz contributed to this report.

The Colorado Independent’s coverage of health equity issues is underwritten by LiveWell Colorado, a member of the Blueprint to End Hunger steering committee. In accordance with The Independent’s editorial independence policy, underwriters have no control over story selection or content.

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Hutchins teaches journalism at Colorado College and writes about media for Columbia Journalism Review's United States Project
Tina was a city columnist for the late great Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. She left Denver for Richmond, Virginia in 2012 and learned the joys of news editing at the city’s alternative newspaper, Style Weekly, and its premiere city mag, Richmond Magazine. She was also a staff writer for the Washington Post and its Storyline public policy/narrative journalism project. She has national recognition for her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She’s a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.