Communicating During a Catastrophe: Boulder County’s emergency alert system proves beneficial

By Kendall Brunette

This was the big one — the event everyone knew could happen, but everyone hoped wouldn’t.

“When you’re in this line of work, you live for these kinds of incidents – you train for it,” said Steve Silbermann, the communications supervisor with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.  “You don’t live for it because you hope for harm on people, land or property, but this is what we do for a living.”

On the evening of Sept. 11, Silbermann left work at the county dispatch center.  It was raining outside, but never did it cross his mind that a historic storm was soon to follow.

But shortly after leaving, the dispatch center became inundated with 911 calls.  People were trapped in cars, stranded on roofs.  Most were simply confused.  They couldn’t fully grasp the severity of the situation.

Around 9 p.m., Silbermann returned to the dispatch center, where his his division chief turned him away, telling him to go home, get some rest and prepare for what would be a long week to come.

Eighteen-hour workdays became the norm. The sleep center within the county communications building remained full as employees worked tirelessly throughout the day and into the night.

Silbermann and his colleagues worked with police and fire departments, and EMS and rescue teams to coordinate emergency protocols and address 911 calls. Rescuers couldn’t respond to several calls simply because there was no access to people.

“The roads [were] being washed away,” Silbermann said.

September brought more than just flooding rain to Boulder County.  It brought challenges that the county never expected to face — problems brought about by a historic storm, but exacerbated by previous wildfire and technological communication issues.  Silbermann and colleagues were prepared to handle many of those challenges, but they never envisioned a flood of this magnitude.

Looking back, however, Silbermann is proud of what the county accomplished and, with a few tweaks in the system, feels that Boulder County is well-prepared for a similar catastrophe.

Fourmile Canyon Fire

Glen Haven road photo

The remnants of a road through the town of Glen Haven, Colo. after September’s flood.
Photo by Kendall Brunette


In 2010 the Fourmile Canyon fire burned more than 6,000 acres and 169 homes.  The devastating fire stripped the land of all vegetation.  The fire left scorched, barren soils prone to flooding.

“When you have a dense forest with undergrowth, you have plants and things to trap moisture and rain,” said Kari Bowen, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder during an interview with LiveScience.  “But when it’s gone, you have nothing to catch it.”

“The fire also makes the ground almost hydrophobic, or water-repelling, and these effects can last 10 to 15 years,” she added.

Exactly three years after the fire, torrential rains consumed Boulder’s rivers, streams, valleys, hills and mountains.  As predicted, dry soil within the burn area did little to absorb the rain and floods ensued.

Over the last three years, hydrologists studied the area in an effort to better understand the increased post-fire flood risk.  According to Silbermann, Boulder County spent millions of dollars to help recover land within the Fourmile burn.  A process known as aerial mulching drops hay mixed with grass seeds from helicopters to increase water absorption on burned soils and re-vegetate the land.  The county hoped the mulching would speed up post-fire recovery and reduce the flood risk.

Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) used the data from hydrologists to educate people living in the burn area, as well as the general public about what could happen in the event of severe weather.  While public education was concentrated on those people living within the burn, Silbermann believes that people everywhere were well-prepared for the flood.

“When we talk about these flood risks that existed after the Fourmile fire, we always imagined it was going to be isolated to the burn area – that those would be the only people severely affected by such a storm,” Silbermann said.  “We never imagined that it was going to be a massive up-slope storm that affected the whole Front Range, let alone just Boulder County. That was the kicker.”

Air Evacuations

Over the next few days, more than 2,000 people were evacuated by Chinooks, Blackhawks and various other air supports.  Silbermann’s sources claim that the 2013 Colorado Flood was the second largest air evacuation in U.S. history.  The only other natural disaster that used comparable air support was Hurricane Katrina.

Silbermann described the scene at the Boulder Municipal Airport – the incident command post during the flooding.

“It was kind of like when you’re at the Boulder Transit Center and RTD buses are flowing in and out – it was like that with helicopters,” Silbermann said.  “It was Chinooks landing and a bunch of people getting out, looking like they had come from DIA because they had their pets in pet carriers, kids in hand and rollaway luggage and duffels.”

Dispatch Communications

Louisville siren photo

Emergency siren in the town of Louisville, Colo.
Photo courtesy Dave Sittner

During the flooding, the Boulder County Dispatch Center relied primarily on their emergency siren system and Everbridge – an interactive communication and mass notification system to relay warnings to the public.  Everbridge sends emergency notifications via text message, phone calls and emails to people who opt-in to the system.

The Boulder County Fire Department designates zones throughout the county that are loaded into a mapping software program.  In the event of an emergency, county dispatchers can log into the program and send a specific message to certain zones.  For example, the Fourmile Burn area comprises a particular geographic zone.  Dispatchers send an array of pre-scripted messages, as well as improvised live warnings through Everbridge.

Four times throughout the year, landlines throughout the county are uploaded into Everbridge.  Messages go out automatically to these lines.  As cell phone popularity surpasses landline use, the need for people to enroll their cellular devices into Everbridge becomes important.  OEM has increased public education to make people aware of their option to opt-in to alerts.

During September’s flood, county dispatch sent over 80 emergency notifications through Everbridge.  The content of the notifications ranged from evacuation notices to water contamination warnings.  OEM maintained a variety of social media outlets including, Twitter, Facebook and their website to keep the public updated.

Rural Communication

For people living in rural parts of the county, however, Everbridge and social media are not reliable methods of communication.  Internet and cellular service can be spotty at best in areas like Boulder Canyon, Fourmile Canyon, Nederland and Lyons.  While Everbridge was still able to send messages through household landlines, the “door-to-door knock and talks,” as Silbermann called them, played a larger part in rural emergency notifications.  Police and fire department personnel conducted home visits that were critical is notifying rural residents of flood danger.

“Yes, communication technologies are invaluable, but that doesn’t compare to a cop or firefighter walking up to your door and saying, get out!” Silbermann said.  “That saved lives – we’ll never know how many.”

Emergency Sirens

siren encoder photo

One of the encoders used to remotely initiate the county’s emergency sirens.
Photo courtesy Dave Sittner

Dave Sittner, communications technician with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said there are 23 emergency sirens throughout the county.  (View siren map here)

One of the questions Sittner frequently hears is why aren’t there sirens at certain locations. For example, why isn’t there a siren in the Fourmile burn zone?  

According to Sittner, there is no “magic bullet formula” determining siren placement.  Generally, officials try to place sirens in places of greatest efficiency – places where the sirens will be heard by the greatest number of people.  

Many rural communities throughout Boulder County don’t have sirens simply because of debilitating costs.  Sittner said that each siren costs approximately $25,000.  The only rural community with sirens within the county is Lyons.  

Dan Barber, deputy director at Boulder OEM, was the county sheriff sergeant assigned to Lyons.  During his time in this position, he urged town officials to spend the money to install new warning sirens.  Eventually, the town paid heed to Barber’s concerns and installed two sirens in 2008.  In Barber’s mind, it wasn’t if, but when the big flood was going to happen and in September Lyons residents were thankful for Barber’s persistent efforts.

Sittner and colleagues heard several reports that Lyons sirens saved countless lives during the flooding.  

After-Action Meetings

In the three months since the flood, local fire and police department, county dispatchers and EMS have and continue to host meetings to capture what went well and what needs to be improved upon, in terms of flood communications.

Silbermann said that, “Overall, this event went really well for emergency services.”  

Most of the challenges that the individual agencies faced were directly related to access.  

“We had 911 calls where we said, I’m sorry, we can’t get to you – a lot of them,” Silbermann said.  

The reality is that the flooding cut off a lot of people from help and emergency services.  One improvement being discussed in the after-action meetings is to map out more pre-determined zones for Everbridge messaging – Lyons specifically.  

“What we’ve done for the Fourmile burn planning, we’re expanding countywide,” Silbermann noted.

Some residents complained that they were unable to hear the siren messaging.  Sittner explained that the sirens are not meant to be heard indoors.  The hope is that the sirens will alert people who are outside and face the most immediate danger.  The Everbridge system complements the sirens by sending alerts to those indoors.  During September’s flood, heavy rain created ambient noise that interfered with the sirens – an issue that they county claims they don’t have any control over.  

Cry Wolf Syndrome

There has been a lot of concern over the years that Everbridge notifications and siren warnings may be used too liberally.  When a storm system settles over areas like the Fourmile burn, dispatchers alert residents of possible flood risks.  When these threats are unanswered, residents become desensitized to the notifications – a situation Silbermann refers to as “cry wolf syndrome.”

September’s events, however, opened people’s eyes to what could happen and how important the emergency communications system really is.    

“There’s no way to put a number on it – there’s no way to have a statistic of it, but we have done so much research and public education to notify our citizens of what could happen in the event of a flood over the last three years since the fire, that I truly believed we saved a lot of lives,” Silbermann concluded.


Boulder’s treacherous journey to flood recovery and resilience

By Lars Gesing

Meteorologists estimate that one inch of rain generally equals about a foot of snow, depending on the snow’s density, of course. That means early December’s 6-inch snowfall, inconvenient as it may have been, was the equivalent of about a half-inch of September rain.

Now flash back just three months, when dozens of Colorado communities were drowned in the misery of a relentless surge of rainwater, mud and debris that broke its way through major portions of the state’s Front Range and Eastern Plains.

Seventeen inches of rain poured down during those eight days in mid-September. Do the math — that’s somewhere around 17 feet of snow, if that precipitation had come this month. As rain, though, the water came down as what the National Weather Service quickly described as a 1,000-year event. The scars it carved into canyons and communities alike will remain palpable for years to come.

In those three months that have passed since the flood, the city of Boulder has managed to re-establish a facade of normalcy. City life soon fell back into routines once the waters receded and the worst – meaning most visible – impacts had been cleaned up.

Yet much work still remains to be done. The city plans to complete repairs of the water system and wastewater facility by spring 2014 and restore a majority of city areas to pre-flood conditions by the end of 2015.

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Also, as nearly one-third of all Colorado households damaged by floodwaters lie within Boulder and about 15 percent of all city households were damaged (see graph) three months is barely enough to get back to normal.

Just ask Michele Vion and you’ll learn how fresh the wounds cut by disaster still are.

Physically ripping out the toilet

While the floodwaters spared Vion’s family home in South Boulder near Table Mesa, five inches of raw sewage accumulated in her basement.

A Boulder City Council summary of the flood noted: “The majority of impacts were located outside of regulatory floodplains due primarily to groundwater and sewage backups.”

Vion translated the official jargon: “The sewage came literally out of every hole.”

In her desperation, she ripped the toilet out of the ground with her bare hands, hoping to cap the welling fountain it had turned into. It did not work.

“At some point, we just gave up and waited for it to be over,” Vion said. She and her family waited six days.

Three months later, Vion’s basement is still a construction site. To physically restore normalcy in her home, the mother of five had to spend $40,000. A sewage insurance policy paid her $5,000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cut a $2,000 check. Vion will spend years to repay the remaining $33,000 through a low-interest loan.

She shares her fate with many families across the city. Some, like Christine and Ari Rubin who suffered an estimated $30,000 damage, were covered by FEMA flood insurance they had just recently bought after the city mailed a postcard to their home advising them to do so. But many others are now shaken with regret because they did not do the same thing.

Faced with many residents’ anger, the city has since deliberated over possibilities to prevent similar damage from occurring. Councilwoman Suzanne Jones urged city council during a Dec. 3 “lessons learned” meeting to take immediate action.

“If we have another flood and we have these kinds of sewer backups again, people will have our heads if we haven’t at least looked at this,” she said.

Flood recovery costs $43 million

Jeff Arthur, director of the Boulder utilities division, estimated the city will need $400 million to improve existing wastewater and stormwater infrastructure to a level where it would be able to withstand a disaster like this year’s flood. Usually, his department spends about 1 percent of that amount, or $4 million, on improvements.

He told Jones during the meeting that it was a question of how much investment the city was willing to make over time.

With an already tight budget, money is scarce within city government post-flood. Recovery costs keep rising and are currently estimated at $43 million.

That number includes repair bills for more than 50 damaged city buildings; water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure; Open Spaces and Mountain Parks (OSMP) restoration, sediment and debris removal as well as repair costs for damaged roads and sidewalks.

FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of the city’s recovery costs, another 12.5 percent of expenses will flow back into city pockets from the state capitol, leaving Boulder with a bill of least $5 million. The bulk of that money comes from a disaster reserve fund and flex repair dollars, pretty much emptying those pots.

The situation left Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum worried about “the next event that is going to happen without those funds,” whether it would be a fire – “or something else.”

The immediate impact on the city’s financial situation is even worse. Boulder Chief Financial Officer Bob Eichem told city council it would take FEMA between six months and two years to transfer the money back onto city bank accounts.

However, he said, they wanted to “rebuild the reserves within one year.”

More financial help is coming from Washington, D.C. On Dec. 5, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $63 million cash injection “to help our communities recover from the flood.”

Days after the floods hit town, then-candidate and now elected councilman Sam Weaver said the event would “give the city a chance to assess how we did with the flood” and improve accordingly.

Three months later, those mitigation efforts have gathered momentum.

“We don’t want to take things back to the way they were, but we want to make them better,” Eichem said. And city manager Jane Brautigam made a case during a recent city council meeting to recover from the flood in a way that would leave the community “more resilient than before.”

While Mayor Appelbaum supports the city’s mitigation efforts, he emphasizes financially sound decisions, distributing existing funds to where they are most needed.

“For certain types of floods, there is just nothing we can do,” he said. “Especially because the water doesn’t always go where we think it is going.”

City trying to help aching business community

According to Boulder Chamber of Commerce CEO John Tayer, those in need are to a great extent local businesses.

“They have borne a heavy toll in terms of infrastructure damage and business disruption,” Tayer said.

The Canyonside Office Park at 100 Arapahoe St. was completely destroyed by the September floods. Credit: U.S. Small Business Administration

The Canyonside Office Park at 100 Arapahoe St. was completely destroyed by the September floods. Credit: U.S. Small Business Administration

Flood-related closures and dislocations ranging from reduced sales traffic to lost inventory worsened the situation.

As Brautigam noted in a memo sent to city council members on Dec. 3, the non-profit organization Downtown Boulder Inc. still receives calls from people asking if it was possible again for them to get to Boulder after the floods.

Tayer said there was a general sense that the flood has had a long-term economic impact because residents and tourists have reduced disposable income to spend at retail stores and in restaurants around town.

“Finally, the floods dampered tourism to our community,” Tayer said.

The Chamber president himself was among those who had to gut their basements after the floods. As did so many others, the Tayer family dealt with serious stress. His wife, Molly, the Boulder County Clerk and Recorder, had to respond to a number of unique challenges herself. It was her task to ensure that those who were displaced in the aftermath of the flood still had a chance to vote in the November elections.

Boulder city government tried to respond to local businesses struggles by partnering with Downtown Boulder Inc. and Twenty Ninth Street to run the marketing campaign “Buy into Boulder.” The ads placed in late November and December are supposed to remind holiday shoppers that for every $100 spend in Boulder, $3.41 flows into the pockets of community services and programs.

The more the city sends the message “buying and dining local,” the more money it makes through sales taxes.

New data from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) shows just how much local businesses need help to get back on their feet.

The SBA has approved $7.5 million in business and economic injury loans for businesses from all around the county that were affected by the flood.

SBA spokesperson Garth MacDonald said he was unable to break down the data to city-level, but his organization would “work with Boulder County applicants to fully complete and process applications” that have yet to be approved.

Flood Rebuilding & Permit Information Center there to assist

Despite all the efforts, it is common political consensus that recovery efforts can be successful only in cooperation with the county.

Therefore, Boulder County opened the Flood Rebuilding & Permit Information Center at its Land Use Department in downtown Boulder three weeks after the disastrous surges hit the Front Range.

The center is a “one-stop portal for people with their various flood-related questions and issues,” staff member Cindy Pieropan said.

Up to six employees deal with a couple dozen daily inquiries, a lot of them related to damaged or destroyed homes, access issues because of broken roads or problems with the septic system.

Pieropan said the center would remain open for at least one, but more likely two more years to deal with the aftermath of the flood.

“A flood is different than for example a fire, which doesn’t damage roads,” she explained. With winter approaching rapidly and with brutal force, it becomes increasingly hard to repair roads before spring, Pieropan said, pointing out that flood impacts tended to be long-term.

Boulder County Flood Recovery Manager Gary Sanfacon explained in a recent video-message to citizens that debris was still one of the core issues in the recovery process.

“A lot of debris has come up on private properties,” Sanfacon said. It was also still in the creeks and could pose future hazards, which is why the county started to implement a debris pick-up program, a collaborative citizen cleaning effort.

Meanwhile, the city of Boulder has managed to break down the number of key objectives for the near-term flood recovery to five. A memo to city council members lists the following activities:

  1. Help people get assistance;
  2. Restore and enhance infrastructure;
  3. Assist business recovery;
  4. Pursue and focus resources to support recovery efforts; and
  5. Learn together and plan for the future.

The city also focusses on restoring the 10 percent of trails in the open spaces that remain closed at this point. A special case is the popular Royal Arch Trail. It was the most severely damaged of all trails in the system. OSMP director Mike Patton and his team keep evaluating best practices on how to rebuild Royal Arch Trail.

In his letter to the editor of the Daily Camera dated Oct. 8, Boulder resident Jim Martin sums up the 17 lessons he learned from the flood. Despite all the misery the devastating floods brought over the city, the county, and the state, Martin’s ultimate lesson is an acknowledgement of outstanding community recovery efforts.

Martin wrote: “There is a little bit of heaven in every disaster area.”

Related links:

Flood Rebuilding & Permit Information Center:

Mapping the flood:

Tell your flood story:

Boulder County flood information:

Weekly round-up: Authorities raid marijuana dispensaries, investigating ties to Colombian drug cartels

By Lars Gesing

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials raided several marijuana dispensaries in the Denver Metro area on Thursday, various local, regional and even national news outlets reported. Members of the Boulder County Sherriff’s Office helped authorities search sites in north Boulder and Nederland. While those served with a warrant in some cases were unsure what the investigations are about, state officials said those businesses had disregarded more than one of the regulations set in place before recreational marijuana retail becomes legal on Jan. 1, 2014. The Denver Post quoted sources on Friday saying that investigators were looking for ties to Colombian drug cartels.


Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum was re-elected for another two-year term during the weekly city council meeting on Tuesday. Appelbaum stayed atop his contender Tim Plass in a 5-4 vote, the Daily Camera reported. Also, newly elected city council members Mary Young, Sam Weaver and Andrew Shoemaker and re-elected councilmen Appelbaum and Macon Cowles got sworn into office during Tuesday’s meeting.


The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment released the state’s unemployment rates for October on Friday. ABC 7News and other media reported that the number – 6.8 percent – was the lowest since unemployment reached 6.7 percent in January 2009, almost five years ago. The October number was also slightly lower than in September, when 6.9 percent of Coloradans where without a job. The national unemployment rate in October was 7.3 percent.

Financial giant Xcel falls to the middleman

By Gloria Dickie

Xcel Energy proved money really isn’t everything last Tuesday night, when Ballot Question 310 failed by 68.88 percent in the city of Boulder.

The multimillion-dollar energy corporation threw hundreds of thousands of dollars behind “Yes on 310” campaigns in the region, hoping to prevent the city from breaking away and creating its own municipal utility fueled by clean energy. But, despite their best financial efforts, local grassroots campaigns prevailed at a fraction of the cost.

“Xcel and [company] ‘officially’ outspent the Empower Our Future campaign by approximately 3:1,” said Alison Burchell, a spokesperson for Empower Our Future and Clean Energy Action. “If you consider what Xcel spent on advertisements prior to the official campaign start date and indirect campaigning, the ratio is even higher.”

With more than half a million dollars wrapped up in “Yes on 310” campaigns, Xcel seemed like the Goliath to many of the clean energy issue campaigns.

“To be honest I think it was an uphill battle from the start,” said Steve Fenberg, executive director of the New Era Colorado Foundation, pointing to the cash flow behind the opposing side, as well as the misinformation he believed had been spread during the campaign season.

According to the latest expense and donor filings from the issue campaign, New Era’s campaign Voters Against Xcel Buying Elections was able to raise nearly $200,000 through crowdfunding via Indiegogo.

While both sides of the issue threw their weight behind local advertising, Fenberg stressed the importance of direct conversation with the community.

Since the beginning of their campaign in July, Fenberg estimated New Era had made contact with 120,000 citizens, by way of knocking on doors, visiting classrooms and cold-calling citizens to inform them of the advantages of municipalization.

“The most successful [method] is really old-fashioned, grassroots work — talking to people face to face. We used Facebook, we did commercials, we did a little bit of mail-outs, but at the end of the day it’s the face to face stuff.”

Burchell, too, emphasized the need to engage in honest community outreach, noting Xcel had dedicated a lot of its time and money toward polling.

Indeed, many groups on the ‘Yes’ side of the question put their resources toward research, with Boulder Citizens for Rational Energy Decisions — sponsored primarily by Colorado Oil & Gas — putting a large chunk of change toward consulting and research.

Still, Xcel spent close to $440,000 on advertising, delivering their message via television and online advertisements and mail-outs, choosing to forego the yard signs that were popular with many residents.


Graphic 1.1. Breakdown of campaign expenses and contributions on 310 & 2E. By Gloria Dickie

Leslie Glustrom of Clean Energy Action and Empower Our Future noted they had distributed over 1,500 yard signs to encourage a ‘No’ vote.

“For a normal campaign, you would get 100 to 200 campaign signs — that’s kind of the standard for Boulder campaigns. It is a wonderful testament to the Boulder community that over 1500 people helped get the message out.”

And while Xcel may have conceded a visual presence on every corner, Burchell observed many citizens were unhappy with Xcel’s strategies, which included offering up gift certificates to citizens who answered questions about the company.

“The most common feedback we have received is how disgusted people are with the volume of Xcel advertising,” she said, adding it seemed many people hoped to never see the name ‘Xcel’ again.

While the ballot question failed by more than two thirds, backers of clean energy recognize there’s still a long way to go.

Empower Our Future, Burchell said, will be looking to work with Xcel to make a “truly smart transition” to clean energy and not continue to strand communities with their bad fossil fuel investments. In addition, they will be directing efforts toward the 31 percent that voted ‘Yes.’

In the meantime, she’s proud of the accomplishments clean energy groups have made in the unequal battle to pursue alternative power sources.

And, if there’s one lesson Burchell learned from her experience, it’s this:

“Clearly, more is not a ‘given’ better, and it is no longer true that the side that spends the most money always wins.”

For a complete breakdown of expenses and contributions, enlarge graphic 1.1.

Weekly round-up: Appelbaum and Plass run for Boulder mayor

By Lars Gesing

Boulder city council will elect a new mayor during its next meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 19. This past week, both current mayor Matt Appelbaum and contender Tim Plass gave short presentations asking for their fellow councilmen and women’s votes, the Daily Camera reported. The presentations were a novelty after accusations of behind-the-scenes-dealing emerged during the 2011 selection process.


Boulder County posted the lowest foreclosure rate of all 12 metropolitan counties in Colorado earlier this week, according to the Boulder County Business Report. Thus, the county had only 32 total foreclosure sales in the past three months, or one for every 3,853 households. These numbers mark a 55 percent decrease versus those posted after the 2012 third quarter. The paper based its findings on data released by the Colorado Division of Housing on Thursday.


It’s been about two months since the historic Colorado floods hit the Front Range. Over the course of the last weeks, a growing number of reports on road re-openings accumulated. The Blue Line recently published a timelapse video showing how construction crews rebuilt one of the hard hit roads in just 3.5 days.


According to a Denver Post report, Colorado regulators have begun surveying marijuana business in the state in an effort to determine the price of pot. That information is essential for lawmakers to implement an excise tax that voters across Colorado approved earlier this month.

However, regulators face a challenging task. As marijuana businesses will initially grow pretty much everything they sale, the wholesale price that is subject to the new tax is really just pot shifting from one entity within the business to another one without cash flow.

That’s where an “average market rate” comes into play that regulators are trying to determine with the help of a questionnaire in order to be able to still collect taxes on these in-house sales.


In the ongoing energy municipalization debate, Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo told Newsteam Boulder last week that her company expects energy rates to rise if the city build its own utility. Click here to see the report on how prices might develop in case of one outcome or the other.

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.

Weekly Round-Up — Nov. 14

By Kendall Brunette


A new study, led by researchers at NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that dust from Colorado’s eastern prairies is making its way onto high-elevation Rocky Mountain snowpacks.  According to a CIRES news release, snow littered with dust particles absorbs more solar radiation, which accelerates melting.  Much of this accelerated melting occurs high in the Rocky Mountains – the headwaters of the Colorado River.  Early runoff from melting snowpack will negatively impact the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for water.


Since September’s devastating floods, the Colorado Department of Transportation and local partners have worked tirelessly to reopen highways and roads that were overtaken by water across the state.  According to the Daily Camera, only 32 miles of highway remained closed and impassable for drivers.  Out of the 485 miles of road damaged during the flooding, U.S. 34 between Loveland and Estes Park and Colorado 7 from the Peak-to-Peak Highway to Lyons are all that is left to be repaired and reopened.


A new set of proposed air quality regulations seem weak in the eyes of Colorado’s anti-fracking activists.  According to Boulder Weekly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new air quality standards, leading the state of Colorado to update its rules which will be presented to the state Air Quality Control Commission on Nov. 21.  Environmentalists argue that the new regulations do not adequately address local air quality infractions and blame the oil and gas industry for pressuring state officials to soften the new rules.