Turnpike spawns growth, taxes, pollution

by Prof. Al Bartlett

This is an enlarged version of a guest editorial in the Boulder Planet (Boulder, Colorado), May 26, 1999.

The Boulder Planet's excellent special report (May 19, 1999) on US highway 36 (The Denver-Boulder Turnpike) began with a misleading headline which said that the "Turnpike Faces an Uncertain Future." The enormous success of the extraordinary ongoing efforts to promote, sell and develop the Colorado Front Range area guarantees that there is no uncertainty about the future of traffic on the Turnpike! Traffic will get worse! The transportation experts consulted by your reporter were only partially correct when they said "Traffic on the Turnpike is going to get worse - maybe a lot worse - before it gets better." The experts were wrong in imagining that, at sometime in the future, traffic would get better. It is fiscally and physically impossible to add more lanes fast enough to overcome the effects of the local population growth that is causing the current increases in congestion. A fundamental law of building urban highways is, "You don't add extra lanes to urban highways to alleviate traffic jams, you add them to enlarge traffic jams."

Some people still maintain that the answer to the problem of congestion on the Turnpike is to add more lanes to the four present lanes (two each way). But let's do some ballpark arithmetic on the cost of adding lanes to the Turnpike. Some years ago State Highway people told me it would cost between $5 million and $8 million a lane-mile to add lanes to the Turnpike. An added lane each way would total about 50 lane-miles, and at the lower figure this would cost about $250 million. If everything is operating perfectly I believe the maximum number of vehicles that can go by on one lane is 2000 cars an hour. That's one car every 1.8 seconds. If the rush hour is 2.5 hours in the morning and 2.5 in the evening, then an added lane each way gives the total added capacity of 10,000 rush hour car round trips each day. For this, the public would pay $250 million. If you do the long division I believe you will see that for these added lanes, the taxpayers would be paying about $25,000 in construction costs for each added vehicle accomodated in the rush hours. This is approximately the retail cost of the extra accomodated vehicle! Is this the best way to spend tax dollars?

In his famous essay, the The Tragedy of the Commons, the biologist Garrett Hardin points out how the benefits of growth accrue to a few, while the costs of growth have to be paid by all. The Turnpike is a wonderful demonstration of the truth of this essay. The benefits of added lanes would accrue to the developers and investors and their politicians who are so eager to see the Turnpike enlarged, while the taxpayers would be left to pay the construction and maintenance costs.

Some years ago there was a hearing in Broomfield on the subject of adding a new interchange to serve the Interlocken Business Park and the big manufacturer, Storage Tech. The meeting opened by having a traffic engineer make a report of his detailed studies of the growth of traffic at several intersections around Broomfield. It does not take much study to realize that, if traffic continues to grow, all intersections in the area will soon be at capacity and jammed. This engineer presented his analysis of the obvious, from which he drew the desired conclusion: a new interchange had to be built. In the question period that followed, I said that there were three questions which seemed to me to be important, but which the engineer had not addressed.

1) What is the long-term future of petroleum as a fuel for motor vehicles?

2) The proposed new Broomfield interchange will pour lots of new traffic on the Turnpike. What will all of this added traffic do to the congestion that was already being experienced on the Turnpike?

3) What did you learn in school? Did you learn that it makes sense to destroy the "limited-access" feature of a limited-access highway?

The presiding officer immediately said, "Next question Please."

The point about limited access was recognized in the Planet's thoughtful story. "As the [Turnpike] corridor has developed it has spawned its own local traffic, contributing to Turnpike congestion... Now it serves multiple destinations. Most of the trips [on the Turnpike] are short ones between interchanges," according to a planner for the Regional Transportation District (RTD).

The Turnpike was planned and built as a limited-access highway, with access only at Baseline Road in Boulder, at the mid-point in Broomfield, and at Federal Boulevard in Denver. It was designed to serve traffic between Denver, Broomfield, and Boulder. But now about five more interchanges have been added, and these added interchanges violate the original intent of the Turnpike. Instead of being preserved as a useful limited-access highway, the Turnpike has been transformed into a crowded heavy-duty city street. The traffic congestion that is the result of this transformation is completely predictable. But we should note that, as proponents of each new added interchange made their cases, the proponents and their hired experts all avoided saying anything about the long-term implications of destroying the limited-access feature that made the Turnpike so useful in its early decades.

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce and the Boulder City Council were instrumental in the initial effort to build the Turnpike. They wanted a limited-access toll road that would serve the people of Boulder, giving us a quick reliable route to Denver. After the Turnpike was paid for, the tolls were removed and the pressure began to build to put new interchanges along the Turnpike. I remember writing to both the Chamber and the Council urging them serve the people of Boulder by opposing new interchanges on the Turnpike because the new traffic generated by the new interchanges would crowd Boulder people off of the Turnpike that they had paid for with their tolls. There was no response.

I attended public meetings in Broomfield and Westminster, asking that two of the proposed new interchanges not be made, and I was laughed out of the halls. After the hearing in Westminster, a high official of Westminster, who had spoken strongly in favor of the proposed Sheridan Interchange, was talking to a group in the lobby outside the hearing room, and, with considerable enthusiasm he said, "With this new interchange, Westminster could grow from its present population of xxx (a modest number) to XXX (an enormous number) in ten years." Then he paused for a moment and added, "And Westminster would probably not be such a nice place when it got that big."

Your story said it very nicely, "the Pike has become a victim of its own success." This is a marvelous example of Eric Sevareid's Law:

"The chief cause of problems is solutions."

The Turnpike was a solution to the problem of getting conveniently between Boulder and Denver. That solution has now caused all of the problems which your story so carefully covered.

The closing quote in the story in the Planet was interesting. "Try to imagine life without the Turnpike." As the Planet's story made clear, the Turnpike spawned all the growth that clogs it today. From the information given in the Planet's story it is clear that without the Turnpike, the growth would not be as overwhelming as it is today, taxes would be lower, the schools would be less crowded, and the air would be cleaner, and the old zig-zag two-lane road from Boulder to Denver would be congested with two lanes of traffic. Now the Turnpike is congested with four lanes of traffic. Add two more lanes, and the Turnpike will be congested with six lanes of traffic. Add ten more lanes....

We are fortunate that our representative on the Regional Transportation District Board of Directors, Judge Richard McLean, understands the problem, probably better than many of the "planners" who were reported by the Planet to have been "taken by surprise" by the rapid growth that is reducing the utility of the Turnpike.

Probably the best way to slow the increase in congestion on the Turnpike is to develop passenger rail commuter service on the existing system of heavy-railroads from Fort Collins, through Loveland, Longmont, Niwot, Boulder, Broomfield and Denver. The Boulder County Commissioners set up a Task Force a dozen years ago to study this. The Task Force presented a plan that envisaged a network of commuter trains operating on existing rails between Denver and many Front Range cities and the new Denver International Airport (DIA). The Mayor of Denver, who later became Secretary of Transportation, showed no interest in developing rail transportation to bring large numbers of commuters and customers from the suburbs and DIA into the heart of Denver. He was a highway man. It is time to get serious and to develop plans to implement the one transportation option that makes sense in the Front Range area of Colorado; heavy rail in which commuter passenger trains operate regularly and reliably on the existing network railroads that converge on Denver. Other American cities are doing it. If we hurry, we can be followers.

Copyright Albert A. Bartlett
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