Something We Didn’t Do

by Tom Clark

As my time as CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Corp. dwindles down to a March 31retirement date, I’m finding myself reflecting on 35 years on the Front Range; and mostly responding to civic and business leaders about the great things that changed our lives since the 1980’s “Oil Bust Recession.”

But, my mind is mostly pondering things that should be addressed for our state to continue sustainable growth and to maintain our commitment to economic and cultural diversity. So here goes:

When it comes to transportation, Metro Denver and Colorado have been prophetic in our choices. We built DEN and added global access with nonstop flights to Europe and Asia. Metro Denver voters approved a $4.2 billon transit system, projecting our image onto the world’s stage. These transportation decisions will last for 50 to100 years. Good for us. 

What we didn’t do: We failed to increase revenue for roads. Business leaders in Silicon Valley said it best to then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Gov. Owens in 2004, when they said, “Dream your dream and build your infrastructure 50 to100 years out.” Their suggestion catalyzed our commitment to fund FasTracks. Gov. Owens had already made his magic by bonding federal funds expected in the future. Despite our best efforts to get ahead of the population growth and the reluctance of voters to approve road funding; none of us could have predicted the Colorado economy would be in the top 5 economies for the last several years, and that job growth and population growth would skyrocket. Voters showed no interest in increasing the gas tax – an antiquated tax that was losing revenue every year. Several options were proposed including additional lending from the feds, a miles-traveled tax, creating a transportation special district in the Metro Denver region, etc. None grabbed the public’s support. 

I realize roads aren’t as attractive as “rail transit,” pneumatic tubes, Maglev trains, and hovercrafts. They are just simply roads – but really, they are much more than that. We can make roads more productive with technology, make asphalt more available at important times, manage traffic merges, etc.  But in the end, we still need some new lanes, less polluting cars, and toll roads that can ensure those who need guaranteed times to their destination. 

It’s time to put something on the ballot in 2017 and get moving. While Los Angeles is basking in its ranking of No. 1 most-congested cities, its working today on more than $10 billion of transit projects to alleviate its problems. We’ve made our biggest investment in transit already, most of which will be online by 2019 with no additional expansion funding available until 2040. A new organization called Mobility Choice comprised of DRCOG, CDOT, RTD, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates, plus private-sector companies, is defining how to maximize our rail, bus, and auto assets. But we cannot simply dismiss the need that this community has for additional road infrastructure. 

There will be opposition on any increase in additional roadways. Voters will be skeptical about a promise to add more lanes that will immediately become clogged once completed. Smarter, more efficient new roads and improved existing roads will need a new story line to be welcomed by voters. And it’s almost beyond our time.

Tom Clark

Former CEO of Metro Denver Economic Development Council

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