Our state’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling. We’re not maintaining our roads; we’re not expanding our systems to meet the state’s growing population; and we’re not thinking creatively to engineer solutions. If we don’t repair things soon, our highways and bridges will be in jeopardy—along with our treasured Colorado lifestyle.
Three hundred and eighty million dollars.
Let that figure sink in for a moment. That’s the annual budget shortfall Colorado faces in its effort to maintain the state highways. The operative word is maintain. (Well, and shortfall.) And what exactly are we maintaining? Right now, only 50 percent of the 23,000 single-lane miles of the state highway system are in “good” or “fair” condition according to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). Which means about half of what we’re failing to maintain (forget about working to improve) is already in “poor” condition.
Before we get too far, let’s back up. What exactly do we mean when we say “infrastructure”? At its most basic “infrastructure” refers to the fundamental facilities, services, and installations needed for a society to function, things like communications, water and power lines, wastewater treatment facilities, public institutions, airports, and transportation systems.
In the past two decades or so, across the United States, those systems of infrastructure have become the focus of serious discussion. Much of this country’s critical infrastructure was built from the mid-1800s to the 1960s. The official New York subway system opened in 1904, the Hoover Dam was dedicated in 1935, the Interstate Highway System was born in the 1950s, and the first bore of what would become the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel was dug in 1968.
All of which is to say that America’s infrastructure, which was the envy of many nations for decades, is getting old. Experts can’t pinpoint when or why we began defunding our public foundations, but this fact is indisputable: America hasn’t been replacing or repairing its older foundations or building new ones to meet today’s needs.
In Colorado, our infrastructure is degenerating as well. According to a 2008 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, two of Colorado’s top three infrastructural issues are roads and bridges (the other is drinking water).
For many of us who live in the Centennial State, the appeal is the legendary “Colorado lifestyle”: a get-out-and-move-around, revel-in-the-geography mantra. But our vaunted quality of life, our tourism dollars, and our attractiveness to new residents and businesses could evaporate if we don’t resurrect our infrastructure.
The statistics, data, and dollar signs on the following pages illustrate how important high-quality infrastructure is to our economy and lifestyle. What might be more difficult to decipher is this: The longer we ignore our roads, bridges, and highways, the more dangerous they become. Missing guardrails, shaky bridges, car-eating potholes, crumbling shoulders on high mountain passes—all of these issues already exist (no joke) or they’re coming to a roadway near you in the next five years.
Does any of this sound familiar?
“I’m not going skiing tomorrow; I just can’t face standstill traffic on I-70 again.”
“I’m not going to work today. The snowplows haven’t touched my street yet.”
“I’d love to meet you for happy hour downtown, but I-25 is a parking lot at that time of day.”
These gripes may sound inconsequential, but they’re not: They’re proof Colorado’s infrastructure isn’t expanding to accommodate our needs. Our infrastructure may not be growing, but Colorado is. Every year, our state adds 48,000 residents, and that means more vehicles contributing to congestion and more wear on our roads and bridges. It’s this growth that fuels the complaints, hampers our lifestyle, and hurts our economy.
For every hour that I-70 is at a standstill, the economic cost to mountain municipalities is $1 million. When tourists sit in traffic trying to get to the mountains for vacation, it allows them time to think about where they might go next year—someplace, perhaps, where traffic isn’t such a nightmare. When employees can’t get to work easily, businesses lose productivity and dollars. When people would rather go home than fight traffic, our restaurants, bars, boutiques, and ballparks suffer. In 2009, on average, each vehicle on Denver’s major thoroughfares experienced 38 hours of extra travel time because of gridlock. Those delays resulted in an economic cost of nearly $5 million per day. Dollar signs are important, but those everyday grumbles mean something else just as crucial: Shoddy infrastructure may eventually cost us the quality of life we hold so dear in Colorado.