Streetsblog Denver, Sept 2019
The Denver Streets Partnership told members of the council that mobility funding within Hancock’s $1.49 billion proposed budget is so paltry that it would take 400 years to build out a complete sidewalk network.
“Mayor Hancock’s proposed 2020 budget will fund just five miles of new sidewalks out of more than 2,000 miles that are missing or sub-standard,” said Jill Locantore of the Denver Streets Partnership.
Beyond sidewalks, the city is falling behind in biking, transit and street safety improvements, too.
“There’s this major disconnect between the city’s own goals and how they are allocating money in the budget,” said Locantore. “All modes — walking, biking, transit, Vision Zero — there’s not enough funding in any one of those.”
The city wants to get more people out of cars and onto transit, bikes and their own two feet to address the its climate, congestion and safety goals. In 2013 officials set a goal to measure how they’re doing by setting a target to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips, from 73 percent to 60 percent by next year. But over six years, the number of people driving alone hasn’t budged.
With few good alternatives to driving and a fast-rising population, more drivers are clogging Denver roads while traffic fatalities and serious injuries are skyrocketing.
“It’s clear that expecting the current budget to meet those needs is not enough. We need new revenue sources,” said Locantore. “They’re not publicly talking about new funding for transportation, but we think they should be.”
Though the Partnership was critical of the overall funding earmarked for transportation, it said the mayor’s proposal offered some bright spots, like funding for bike infrastructure and the Vision Zero program.
The Department of Public Works will add two new staffers to its Vision Zero team, for a total of six. Locantore hopes they will quicken the city’s installation of street safety improvements. “Part of the reason the city has been slow to make changes to the street is that it lacks staffing,” she said. “With those two new positions, we hope to see an acceleration of the pace which they are putting in these safety improvements.”
People who bike may notice better bike lanes next year, too. The partnership asked for $7 million to continue building out the city’s bike network. The Mayor’s budget proposal allocates $5 million, but another $1.9 million will rebuild 18th and 19th Streets downtown with dedicated bike and transit lanes.
“That’s exactly the sort of corridor-wide transformation we’ve been asking for. It’s going to completely transform how those streets operate,” said Locantore. “Our only disappointment is that they only funded that type of improvement on one corridor.”
The mayor’s budget has no specific funding for the proposed Bus Rapid Transit line on Colfax. Although the Department of Public Works planned to start the environmental review process in August of last year, the project stalled. The city can use voter-approved bond money to fund the first stages of the project, but it has chosen not to. The delay in the environmental review could push the project’s completion date out to 2024 or into the late 2020s, according to the Denver Post.
Transportation accounts for the largest share of carbon emissions in the U.S., and those emissions are rising—even as other sectors have improved. As federal policy and funding encourages more and wider highways, people live further away from the things they need and the places they go. We’re driving further and further every year just to get where we need to go. Emissions have risen despite increases in fuel efficiency standards and the adoption of electric vehicles. Despite an admirable 35 percent increase in the overall fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet from 1990-2016, emissions still rose by 21 percent. Why was that? Because the total amount of miles traveled increased by 50 percent in that same period.
Simply put, we’ll never achieve ambitious climate targets if we don’t reduce driving.
We don’t have a money problem, we have a policy problem
Politicians (and the media) love to bemoan our “crumbling roads and bridges.” That must mean we need more money to fix them, right? Here’s a secret: most of the billions we spend every year on our infrastructure never go to repair. Despite the rhetoric, there is nothing in federal law that requires states to repair the roads we already have, so most federal money goes to building more highways. That’s a problem that more money won’t solve.
Even the National Academy of Sciences, through the Transportation Research Board, has called for massively increasing highway spending to as much as $70 billion annually to accommodate (or encourage, as it were) an additional 1.25 trillion miles of driving each year—blatantly ignoring what this would do to our emissions.
California, Hawaii, and Minnesota have all found that even with a fleet of electric vehicles, they will still fail to reach their aggressive climate targets without an accompanying effort to reduce driving.
A better federal policy would be to invest more in climate-friendly transportation options like transit, walking, and biking, and to stop stacking the deck so that local communities have to choose between easy money for a highway or an uphill slog for transit cash. While we guarantee states over $40 billion annually for highways, only $2.6 billion is available for new or expanded public transit, and this funding is not guaranteed. Further, while the federal government will cover 80 percent of the cost of a highway project, it will only pay for up to 50 percent of the cost of a transit project.
With limited funding for transit and the national rail network and federal dollars for walking and biking overwhelmed by the billions spent on highways, federal policy is designed to keep us in our cars. Further, highway funding is distributed by Congress to states based on how much fuel is burned. The more gas is burned in a state, the more money states get to spend on highways. It should hardly be surprising that this has forced people to drive more over the past decade while making the climate impacts of transportation worse.
When you consider U.S. transportation policy in light of the existential crisis that climate change poses, it starts to look pretty asinine.
Access to a better future
Getting where you need to go shouldn’t always require a car, but we’ve designed our communities to prioritize car travel over everything else. With nearly half of all car trips three miles or less, many trips could be easily traversed by foot, bicycle, or transit. But the way we build roads to prioritize high-speed driving makes shorter walking, bicycling, or transit trips unsafe, unpleasant, or impossible.
It’s time that we stop prioritizing expansion over maintenance. It’s time for a paradigm shift. Cars certainly have a place in our transportation system, but our climate simply cannot sustain a system that rewards more and more driving. Our communities would be happier, healthier, safer, and more equitable if we built them for people instead of cars.
If we can retire this system that has doubled the country’s amount of driving in just a little over 30 years, we could build a transportation system that would improve access to the places that people need to go and reduce our emissions at the same time. We drove ourselves into this mess; now we’ll have to drive a little less to find our way out of it. https://usa.streetsblog.org/2019/09/18/commentary-federal-transportation-policy-is-undermining-progress-on-climate/