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Car-Hating Puritans are Destroying Colorado

Opinion Editorial
March 7, 2001

By Wendell Cox

Colorado House Bill 1329 gives a new dimension of meaning to the old phrase fiddling while Rome burns. As the state of Colorado continues to grow, traffic congestion continues to worsen. There is no relief in sight, as current plans do not provide the capacity that will be required to even maintain, much less restore Colorados high quality lifestyle.

House Bill 1329 would siphon off nearly $1.5 billion in what are legally referred to as excess state revenues (tax money that should be refunded to the taxpayers) over a 10-year period for multi-modal transportation projects. Multi-modal transportation projects are defined in the legislation to include virtually every form of land transport with the exception of the mode used by most Coloradans for most trips: general purpose streets and highways. The commitment of such a large amount of money might make sense if multi-modal transportation (which is largely buses, light rail and intercity rail) represented a substantial amount of travel in the state. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Today, government transit carries less than two percent of travel in the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area. Even before most of this newly proposed funding would be added to the mix, local officials plan to spend 55 percent of available transportation resources on government transit over the next 20 years in the Denver-Boulder area. The reward? Government transits market share will rise less than one percentage point. Surely this sets some sort of record with respect to misallocation of resources. If, in return for 55 percent of the money, government transit was poised to attract 55 percent of travel, such a level of spending could be justified. But, in reality, no reasonably realizable amount of Colorado tax funding would produce a perceivable shift from cars to trains or other forms of government transit in the Denver-Boulder area.

And the problem is not just metropolitan. New government transit systems will make little difference even in the corridors in which they are built. The much heralded I-25 light rail line will not attract enough new riders to equal even a single lane of traffic. The I-25 light rail line will be much more expensive than constructing a new freeway lane — and this is using the typically overly optimistic projections of the rail advocates. Origins and destinations are simply too dispersed for government transit of any form to make a difference.

Government transit does a creditable job of moving people to the densely developed downtown area, where more than 15 percent of employees use it to get to work. But government transit is incapable of moving a substantial number of people to any other area. No major non-downtown employment center in the nation has a large share of its employees traveling to work by transit. The reasons are simple. Government transit service is quick and frequent enough to compete with the automobile only to downtown. For the great majority of trips taken in the Denver-Boulder area, government transit is not available, is far too slow, too circuitous, or requires time-consuming transfers from one vehicle to another.

The issue is not how many people crowd onto the train, it is how many cars the train takes off the highway. New rail systems have not reduced traffic congestion in Portland, Sacramento, St. Louis or any other U.S. urban area. The same is true and will continue to be true in Denver.

Regrettably the politics of rail transit more resemble theology than public policy. Many people and organizations perceive the automobile to be the equivalent of the Great Satan. Discouraging auto use, or at least making it much more painful to use, is seen as good in itself. What amount would make the anti-auto Puritans happy? Wasting 75 percent of transportation dollars on government transit that few people use? Wasting a hundred percent?

If the argument were about policy instead of theology, at some point questions of proportion would arise. Any private sector chief executive officer who committed 55 percent of the firms resources to less than two percent of its market would soon be looking for work. But not so in the public sector, where such bizarre behavior is reality.

And as pitiful as are the Denver-Boulder numbers, things are even worse in the rest of the state. There, the favored multi-modal transportation modes, such as government-operated intercity rail, account for less than 1/10 of one percent of travel. If multi-modal projects were to increase ridership on such modes by 50 times (a simply unrealizable goal — doubling would be difficult enough), the impact on traffic would not be noticeable. The indisputable fact is that, among the numerous proposals for intercity rail systems around the nation, not a one has been projected by its proponents to have a material impact on traffic volumes.

Meanwhile, the transport system that is used for virtually all travel outside the Denver-Boulder area and almost all travel in that area, the highway system, is completely ignored by H.B.1329. Traffic congestion in the Denver-Boulder area, in the states major resort areas, and on the two major interstates will continue to worsen. Even the anti-automobile planners project that traffic volumes will continue to grow substantially, regardless of what multi-modal projects are built. But their mean-spirited driver-hating religion does not permit them to address the problem. It is time for Coloradans to stand up to this craziness. Committing a major share of transportation resources to programs that yield such a pitiful return is both incoherent and inappropriate.

Wendell Cox is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

Please send comments to Editorial Coordinator, Independence Institute, 14142 Denver West Pkwy., suite 185, Golden, CO 80401 Phone 303-279-6536 (fax) 303-279-4176 (email)webmngr@i2i.org
Copyright 2001