Long road out of misery: Boulder searches for answers to imminent transportation questions

By Lars Gesing

Next time you are stuck in traffic during your morning commute, remember this: you are not alone.

In fact, you share your fate with about 54,000 Boulderites who travel to their jobs — by car, bus, bike, or foot — on every workday, according to the 2012 American Community Survey.

Add another 50,000 daily in-commuters from out-of-town that the 2013 Boulder Trend Report lists, and you start to understand the mayhem that tends to reign on main Boulder transportation corridors during rush hour.

Newly elected city council member Sam Weaver called transportation the “most underfunded city program.”

And Mayor Matt Appelbaum said: “We have all kinds of funding problems. There is no money.”

The recent election results offer some kind of silver lining. Voters this month overwhelmingly approved of several ballot issues that will over time shift tax revenue from open spaces programs to the city’s general fund and into public transportation.

Still, both Boulder County and the city face difficult decisions – some of which can be made in tandem – in order to reduce the crowding on local roads.

The 2012 Boulder County Transportation Master Plan sums up five strategies to address the issue:

  1. Developing a multimodal transportation system,
  2. Creating the complete trip,
  3. Investing in key transportation corridors,
  4. Increasing accessibility, and
  5. Enhancing mountain area connections.

These goals pinpoint the effort to get people out of their cars and accustomed to alternative transportation means.

Programs like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) between Denver and Boulder are designed to reduce the city’s projected growth of in-commuting-numbers.

However, Mayor Appelbaum warned that “doing Bus Rapid Transit right” means including the east corridor and not just U.S. Highway 36 in corresponding scenarios.

There are several options for the north metro rail. Image by RTD

There are several options for the north metro rail. Image by RTD

According to a recent Blue Line report, completion of the scheduled Northwest Rail line might also be no longer just a distant figment. The extension of the train to Boulder, Longmont and Louisville among other cities (see graph in sidebar) is another regional approach.

Thus, a statewide coalition called Impact 64 is seriously considering placing a 15-year, 0.7 percent sales and use tax for transportation needs around Colorado on the November 2014 ballot, hoping to raise $1.8 billion for metro Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) and for several other statewide transportation improvements.

However, the recent failure of Amendment 66 and its plan to increase income taxes to fund statewide education is a cautionary tale of what Colorado voters think of additional taxes.

CU-Boulder doctoral student Shannon Sindorf used to commute into Boulder five times a week from her family home in Englewood. Even though she managed to reduce that number to two trips a week, she still calls for action.

“We need a light rail going from Denver to Boulder,” Sindorf said. “I used to take the bus and it took two hours each way. Who has time for that?”

Former Boulder city council member Crystal Gray offers an additional, environmentally-based argument: “Bringing the train to the North Metro area offers the biggest gains in carbon reduction.”

But improving public transportation possibilities can only reduce the eight million miles that vehicles travel on Boulder County roads each day by so much.

Whether or not the city’s efforts to encourage people to abandon their cars will be successful depends to a large extent on housing market developments.

As Boulder remains an attractive place to live, housing prices are soaring accordingly. Councilman Sam Weaver said it was a “measured fact” that “people want to live where they work.” A lot of those working in the city simply can’t afford a home within Boulder’s boundaries, though.

Consequently, they look for a house in surrounding communities, accepting the hassles of a daily commute.

John Tayer, president of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, recently urged city government to adopt policies to increase workforce housing. Such steps would “provide more opportunities for employees to live and work in Boulder, thus avoiding a burdensome daily commute,” he said.

City deliberates about Eco Passes, parking fees and additional bike lanes

While more than 50,000 daily in-commuters require regional policies, Boulder’s primary concerns are those who don’t want to quit driving within city limits.

According to the 2012 American Community Survey, 71 percent of Boulder residents worked in-town. But more than half of the city’s working population (see graph) still rely on their cars instead of other transportation commuting possibilities.

Distributing community-wide Eco Passes that allow holders to use public transportation for free is among the debated approaches to change that.

However, the measure encounters broad resistance.

“Many areas in town still have poor access to transit. Until that is improved, the vast majority of people will still drive, free bus or not, because the bus just isn’t very convenient,” said Sue Prant, director of the Boulder-based non-profit organization Community Cycles.

And then there is the price tag. The Blue Line recently quoted Zane Selvans, a member of the city’s Transportation Advisory Board, who explained that a recent preliminary cost estimate for community-wide Eco Passes amounted to $21 million annually, about double the funding the city currently makes available for Eco Passes.

Still, 56 percent of all bus riders countywide are Eco Pass or college pass holders, according to the 2013 Boulder Trend Report – numbers that prove at least a partial effectiveness of the measure.

Meanwhile, councilman Macon Cowles pointed to the city’s limited power in the realm of a much broader picture. “As long as we have no national energy policy, we have cheap gas,” he said.

Ray Bridge, co-chair of PLAN-Boulder County, said in order to reduce single-driver vehicle use, the city needed to support mass transit, cycling and walking and “reduce subsidies for parking.”

Some – like Mayor Appelbaum – argue that imposing parking fees would harm the local economy and drive businesses away rather than helping with the commuting problem.

Chamber of Commerce President Tayer said recently that parking fees could be “an appropriate way to recover the cost to build and maintain parking and, under certain circumstances, reduce congestion.” However, he warned, parking fees as a tool for promoting alternative transportation use “should not be implemented lightly.”

New city council member Weaver on the other hand advocated pilot projects in cooperation with local businesses to see if parking fees would actually reduce the number of times workers relied on their car each week.

Instead, Weaver hoped, workers might climb on their bikes at least every once in a while. First, he admitted though, the city had to “make biking in town safer and more attractive” by further exploring the possibility of fully separated bike lanes such as the one on Baseline Road.

Boulder politicians, businesses and community leaders are still hunting for the golden key to solving the transportation issues that both the city and county face. While each party favors different approaches, it is common consent that no single-handed measure will bring ultimate success.

Or, as Mayor Matt Appelbaum puts it: “Consensus won’t be easy. I think we will do it. But it won’t be easy.”

So for now, just remember this in the midst of the next traffic jam: you are not alone. They are thinking about you.

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