How can we fix our state's crumbling infrastructure?
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.
“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.
Explaining Colorado’s outdated motor fuel tax.
You know that small sticker you see on every gas pump that tells you part of the $3.46 per gallon you’re pumping goes to state and federal taxes? That money is how Colorado funds most of its transportation infrastructure.
In Colorado, the state tax is 22 cents per gallon of gasoline. The federal tax is just over 18 cents per gallon (although it was slated to expire on September 30). Those monies, combined with a handful of other income streams, create CDOT’s annual budget.
Here’s the problem: Colorado’s state gas tax has been 22 cents per gallon for 20 years—and it’s not likely to change any time soon. That the gas tax is not adjusted for inflation, which typically averages 3.38 percent, only compounds the problem. And with vehicles becoming more efficient (a Ford Explorer now gets 25 miles per gallon on the highway; a Toyota Prius gets 48), biofuels becoming more common, and hybrids filling the roads, our gasoline consumption appears to be on a downward trend. In 2010, Americans’ thirst for gas was eight percent less than in 2006, and some experts are predicting that by 2030 it will have dropped by at least 20 percent.
Our need for gasoline may be waning, but Colorado’s roads and bridges still hunger for the tax money fuel sales generate. It would cost about $10 billion to ensure that three-quarters of our roads are in good or fair condition in the next 10 years. Against currently projected revenue, we will be off that mark by $8.3 billion. So while that Prius seemed like the way to go environmentally, you may wish you’d invested in a Jeep—you might eventually need four-wheel drive to navigate I-70.
“Most smart people that I speak with are amazed we haven’t raised the gas tax,” says Don Hunt, executive director of CDOT. And by “we,” Hunt means those with political clout. To raise the gas tax, someone with influence and the ability to raise the necessary funds would need to campaign to get a measure placed on a November ballot so Coloradans—a notoriously tax-averse group—could vote on it. Not surprisingly, no one has stepped up to deal with this political hand grenade since 1991. Which means Coloradans haven’t even been given the chance to vote on whether or not they’re OK with unsafe roads, crumbling bridges, increasing traffic congestion, and decreasing access to the mountains.
CDOT’s inspectors chip away at our bridge crisis.
CDOT bridge engineer Tom Tatalaski hovers 14 feet off the ground in a cherry picker basket. After a few adjustments to his steering mechanism, the 37-year-old inspector leans out of the white basket, eyeballs the concrete surface in front of him, and pulls out his tool of choice: a hammer.
I’ve ventured 25 miles east of Denver to meet Tatalaski and Mark Stadig at Bridge F-18-AP, a 100-foot-long nothing of a structure that allows I-70 to pass over a frontage road. Traveling at 65 miles per hour over F-18-AP, you’d never even know you’d driven over a bridge.
Colorado has 3,447 bridges on its highways. Of those, nearly 2,000 were built before 1975. Most bridges’ life expectancies hover around 40 years. Old age, changing traffic patterns, weather, deicer, and heavier vehicles contribute to the deterioration of any bridge, but some overpasses simply wear out more quickly than others. In 2009-2010, CDOT reported there were 128 “poor” bridges in Colorado. Those spans needed immediate funding to address safety issues. Enter FASTER, a 2009 transportation bill that increased vehicle registration fees to create money for highway projects, transportation improvements, and bridges. It was the first new stream of revenue for transportation in 20 years. The money is now flowing in; however, it isn’t enough, especially since FASTER revenues have not met initial projections.
Take the I-70 viaduct in north Denver (near the Purina plant), which is the largest bridge in Colorado, and on the list of the 128 poor bridges in the state. It cost $12.5 million to build in 1964 and carried 31,000 vehicles daily. In ’09, it served 137,000 vehicles a day. Though the viaduct has been “rehabilitated” recently to address safety issues like expansion joints, drainage, and road surfacing, reconstruction will be necessary in the next decade. That project alone is projected to cost $1 billion.
Today, though, the inspectors are concerned with F-18-AP. Built in 1960, this bridge is listed as functionally obsolete. Its under-clearance is just 14 feet and 2 inches—not high enough for many contemporary vehicles. “We get tall trucks hitting low bridges like this,” Stadig says. Tatalaski is more concerned with areas of concrete along the horizontal support that are “delaminating,” which means the concrete is separating from the internal rebar. The engineer takes his hammer and pounds on the concrete—it sloughs off in football-size chunks. “This bridge is actually doing OK after 51 years,” he says, “but the substructure is very close to being rated low enough to deem the bridge structurally deficient.” He smiles and sighs as if to say, “Add it to the list.” —LBK
Could it happen in Colorado?
In 2007, Minnesotans were stunned when part of a Minneapolis highway bridge plunged into the Mississippi River, taking vehicles, metal, and concrete along with it. Thirteen people died, and 145 people were injured after the structure’s main support failed. Laypeople may have been shocked, but transportation experts across the country were less surprised; they decried a nationwide lack of funding for inspecting and maintaining America’s roads and bridges. Here in Colorado, then-state Senator Dan Gibbs, who co-sponsored the FASTER bill in 2009, shook his head and crossed his fingers. With 128 “poor” bridges in Colorado, Gibbs made sure FASTER would begin addressing those structures—but he knew that Colorado would be fortunate to avoid tragedy. “If we don’t start fixing our bridges, we’re going to make national news with a collapse,” Gibbs says today. “And people are going to say ‘What’s going on in Colorado?’ ” So, how does our state compare with Minnesota? See for yourself.
Colorado / Minnesota
Population (2010): 5,029,196 / 5,303,925
Population density rank: 39 / 33
State fuel tax rate: 22 cents/gallon / 27.2 cents/gallon
Percent of major roads in poor/mediocre condition in ’08 :32% / 32%
Percent of bridges that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete: 18% / 13%
Colorado’s infrastructure needs politicians—and the public—to buy in.
Infrastructure, one might think, would be a bipartisan issue. But that’s simply not the case. “We’re at a stalemate at a state level and a federal level,” says Colorado Senator Scott Renfroe, a Republican who represents parts of Weld County, Greeley, and Eaton. “Republicans and Democrats have opposite views on how to fund things—including infrastructure.”
A bill brought before the state Legislature in 2009 illustrates Renfroe’s point. Co-sponsored by then-Senator Dan Gibbs and then-Representative Joe Rice, both Democrats, the 2009 FASTER bill proposed raising Colorado’s motor vehicle registration fees by an average of $41 to help fix deficient bridges and make Colorado’s roads safer. The proposed increase would still leave the state with the fourth-cheapest motor vehicle fees in the country. The bill passed — with nearly zero support from Republicans, some of whom argued FASTER was a thinly veiled unconstitutional tax increase—and began infusing about $180 million into CDOT’s coffers each year.
According to many legislators, co-sponsoring the bill cost Joe Rice his seat. “FASTER was certainly the subject of tens of thousands of pieces of mail, and my opponent made it a mainstay of her campaign,” Rice says. “Too few elected officials are able to take on tough problems because the other side will use it against them. Both parties are at fault here.”
The impasse leaves Colorado’s infrastructure in purgatory. Many Democrats, such as state Representative Max Tyler, think complete transportation solutions—light rail, streets with bike lanes, better bus lines, and maintenance—should be better funded, whether that’s through a raise in the gas tax or, perhaps, by alternative options like a vehicle miles traveled tax. Republicans like Senator Renfroe and Representative Glenn Vaad, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, do not support a hike in the gas tax; they want to “devolve” infrastructure from the federal level back to local levels. They believe if infrastructure is funded locally, through increases in cities’ sales taxes or mill levies, for example, there will be more buy-in from businesses and residents.
But the blame cannot solely be placed on politicians. “The question is, what do the people want,” says Don Hunt, CDOT’s executive director. “Are they willing to drive on bad highways?” If not, Coloradans should vote for a general assembly that’s willing to creatively and boldly address the budget shortfalls that may eventually cripple the way Coloradans live, work, and play. “When we introduced FASTER in 2009,” Gibbs says, “you would have thought the sky was falling on the Capitol the way legislators were reacting. I promise you that there wasn’t one legislator in the building that didn’t know we needed to fix things, yet so many lacked the political will to do it.”
As temperatures dip, maintenance costs rise. Colorado’s wintry mix—snow, ice, frigid temps—is a serious money hog. Here, the pounding the state’s coffers take.
Your urgent light rail questions, answered.
Why aren’t all the light rail lines built? Didn’t we vote on this years ago?
Voters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax increase to fund FasTracks in November 2004, but building public transportation systems in an established city takes an enormous amount of planning—RTD had to buy land, sign agreements with railroad lines, and design the lines and stations.
So when will FasTracks be done then?
Good question. The West Line (to Golden) will be done by 2013. The East Line to DIA and the Gold Line to Wheat Ridge will both be done by 2016. The rest of the lines (I-225, North Metro, Northwest Rail, U.S. 36 Bus Rapid Transit, as well as extensions to the Southeast, Central Corridor, and Southwest lines) will take more time.
Oh, because RTD is way over budget, right?
Actually, no: RTD is nailing its construction budgets. The problem has to do with overly optimistic economic forecasting. Like most everyone in 2004, RTD economists expected that the economy was going to keep rising and construction materials would remain stable. Instead, the economy crashed, so RTD isn’t getting nearly as much sales tax revenue as it expected. Construction costs, meanwhile, soared. RTD needs another $2.4 billion to complete the project on time.
Where is that money going to come from?
Most likely us. While RTD has saved $300 million by putting together public-private partnerships to finish the Gold and East lines, if we’d like to complete all the FasTracks on time (by 2020), we’ll need to approve another 0.4 percent sales tax increase in 2012. That’s eight cents for every $10 you spend—a pretty great deal considering the enormous effect on traffic and quality of life in the metro area.
Denver’s traffic may not rival that of chicago or L.A., but the city’s growth means we can’t just keep adding cars.
Although vehicle travel in metro Denver hasn’t grown much in the past five years, the vehicle miles traveled per day increased by 18 percent from 2000 to 2006. Which is why we’re all sitting in traffic on I-25 and I-70 going to and from work. On average, each vehicle on Denver’s major roads experiences 38 hours of extra travel time per year because of congestion. With an expected population growth of 1.3 percent annually, that delay time is expected to nearly triple by 2035.
To avoid turning into traffic-clogged L.A., we need to adjust. And in many experts’ views, adjusting means using incentives and disincentives to “encourage” people to change their habits, infusing congestion-mitigating technology into the traffic system, and working with businesses to get them involved in solving the problem. Here, five traffic alleviation tools that Denver could try.
Weekend I-70 drivers currently experience an extra hour of travel time just to get from C-470 to Silverthorne; by 2035, travel time is expected to be triple what it was in 2000. We explored six ways to ameliorate mountain highway traffic.
An original Eisenhower Tunnel worker reflects on a monumental public works project.
On march 15, 1968, construction crews broke ground on what was then the highest vehicular tunnel in the world. Four-plus decades and $262 million later, the Eisenhower tunnel ferries an average of 31,000 vehicles per day through the Continental Divide, its construction a key part of the Interstate Highway System and a crucial contributor to Colorado’s ski industry boom. Richard Eckles, 81, worked on the 11-year project from beginning to end, in several capacities. This summer, he spoke with 5280 about what it was like to play a role in American transportation history.
How did you come to work on the tunnel crews?
I worked for the state highway department. I was sent to Idaho Springs to work on the interstate (Eckles is shown above, in the center, near Idaho Springs in 1959), and since the tunnel was part of the interstate, our crew was assigned to the tunnel. I worked in the documentation section and later was a crew coordinator. After that I did daily reviews of the construction diaries, and some of those summaries went into the documented history of the tunnel.
Did you know you were working on something momentous at the time?
It was a pretty big deal because nobody had put that size of a bore under the Continental Divide before. There definitely was a sense that we were doing something historic; we wrote the first-ever $1 million monthly estimate [for construction costs], and now that’s kind of a regular thing.
Did it ever feel dangerous?
Oh, yeah. It was always dangerous because you never knew what was going to happen, and you couldn’t foresee anything. It was similar to mining because you used drills and dynamite; what miners do is on a very small scale, but we were working on shafts that were about 30 feet by 30 feet.
What does it feel like to drive through it now?
I notice different things happening in there than other people would. When you drive through it you’re only seeing about one-third of the excavation we did above and below the tunnel.
Do you think this project is the last of its kind?
You might see another tunnel someday through that mountain to relieve the I-70 congestion. There might be some new innovations in the technology, but it would be similar to what we did before, only a lot more expensive.
High-speed rail could reshape transportation in the West—if it ever starts moving forward.
Imagine getting from Denver to Vail in 40 minutes, or easily skiing Utah for a weekend without ever boarding a plane. This is the promise of high-speed rail (HSR), technology that’s already ubiquitous in parts of Europe and Asia and could, if developed here, forever change the way we get around for work and play.
Unfortunately, imagining this transportation utopia is about all we can do right now. Despite the Obama administration’s commitment earlier this year of $53 billion to further the development of HSR, and Colorado’s potential as a hub, it may be 20 years or more before so-called bullet trains are a part of our everyday lives.
To Tom Skancke, waiting a few decades would be worth it. The executive director of the Western High Speed Rail Alliance says the debate about HSR mirrors one Americans had over the Interstate Highway System. “All the things they’re saying about HSR are the same things they were saying about highways in the 1950s, and now that’s the backbone of the American economy and what’s made this country the economic power that it is,” he says.
Countries like France, Germany, and China, meanwhile, have committed to HSR despite having topography similar to that of the Rocky Mountain region. “Engineers can engineer anything, and the technology can be created,” Skancke says. “The Chinese built 1,100 kilometers of rails in 48 months. We’re the only developed nation that doesn’t have this technology.”
The economic crisis means that dubious distinction won’t end anytime soon, unless we start thinking with some ingenuity. Henry Dale, former chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, says that to have any chance of succeeding, American HSR needs private-sector developers who have the support of the government for right-of-way and environmental impact issues, both of which are being studied by intrastate groups across the country. Meanwhile, Skancke says test programs will start to pop up throughout the West and Southwest over the next decade. Until then, HSR’s sky-high potential may remain earthbound. m