Over the last few years, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has had a habit of playing fast and loose with taxpayer money, and setting their own priorities regardless of what those of Coloradans might be. In part, they’re able to get away with this because CDOT’s governing body, the Colorado Transportation Commission, is appointed entirely by the governor, with the approval of the state Senate.
In 2019, an audit found that “Budget-to-actuals analysis cannot be performed for nearly $1.3 billion — about 80 percent — of the department’s approved budget…” This resulted in precisely none of the commissioners overseeing CDOT tendering their resignations. Now, the state auditor is looking into possible favoritism toward an out-of-state contracting company. The commissioners have lost control of the department.
Now, the commissioners also appear to have lost touch with the citizens whose money they’re spending.
Jumping the rails
This past December, they voted to adopt a rule that could end up redirecting billions of dollars from roads and highways toward inefficient boutique “green” transit. It would also encourage denser housing, thus limiting people’s ability to buy single-family homes. The new rule even manages to work “equity” into the mix, echoing questionable arguments made by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
In short, the commissioners have unilaterally rewritten their charter to turn themselves from custodians of the state’s roads, highways and bridges into the state’s centralized urban planners, helping to determine local land use, and enslave the suburbs and exurbs to the major cities’ urban cores.
CDOT wouldn’t be the first transportation agency to decide that it would be a lot easier to maintain roads without all those pesky cars trying to use them. Whether or not it would be safer is another matter. My friend Monica Showalter described how Pittsburgh decided to fund bike lanes instead of repairing visibly at-risk bridges, one of which just collapsed:
“Instead of repairing the bridge with what likely would have been the Obama-era shovel-ready 2009 infrastructure funds for ‘roads and bridges,’ known as the ‘American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,’ the cash went to bike lanes and green boondoggles, and too bad about the actual structure that was decaying and deteriorating. Buttigieg loves those bike lanes. Bridges that stay up? That is for someone else to take care of.”
Showalter also covered California’s explicit bait-and-switch on a new gas tax, with voters being persuaded that a repeal of their 2017 increase would leave roads in ruins, only to have Gov. Gavin Newsom unilaterally redirect the money to allegedly “green” rail projects.
Feds are in on it
This negligence is just one of a long line of misdirection of federal money. Secretary Buttigieg is here to add to the list. The “infrastructure” bill gave his department discretion over a slush fund of somewhere between $100 billion and $200 billion of the appropriations. It’s clear even now where that money is headed, and it’s not to widen I-70 to Vail.
CDOT will also overtly push for what it euphemistically calls “more efficient land use,” i.e., cramming more people into condos and apartments while discouraging building single-family homes. This both subsidizes more building in Denver and limits the out-of-city options for people who would like a house of their own in the suburbs. You may have left Denver because of its poor governing choices, but you’ll still be forced to send money back to it to compensate.
Even if you don’t think this is a terrible way to run a state, what business is it of CDOT?
Micromanaging our lives
All of this goes back to a long betrayal of one of our most important founding principles — that legislatures should ultimately be in charge of how money is spent. In this case, that principle is being betrayed on both the federal and state levels. At the federal level, Congress has given Buttigieg a “slush fund” of somewhere between $100 million and $200 million to dispense as he sees fit. At the state level, CDOT will be able to apply for funds for projects fitting the governor’s favored politics.
Note what has happened here — an appointed board has reoriented transportation priorities away from roads and bridges and toward “green” projects, and injected race politics into the process, as well. It has expanded its mandate to judge a project’s secondary and tertiary effects on greenhouse gases, which means that the actual effect on climate is nearly purely speculative.
The effects on how we live, however, will be all too real. For a while now, the Denver Regional Council of Governments — abbreviated DRCOG and affectionately pronounced, “Dr. Cog” — has been pushing for so-called development corridors, for the bulk of new housing to be built near existing interstates and major highways. Large swathes of eastern Adams and Arapahoe counties go undeveloped.
Municipal adherence to this plan is strictly voluntary, but to the extent it is followed, it has the obvious effect of limiting new single-family housing, forcing people into denser quarters along existing commuting routes. It forces up housing prices, and deprives people of what most leave the city for — a house and a yard of their own. It has the perverse effect of increasing traffic, since more people are forced along the same arteries.
Its one redeeming feature was that there was no real enforcement mechanism, leaving Douglas County or Castle Rock, for example, free to build where they wanted. But CDOT’s self-arrogation of power provides a means of enforcement: you might want to build that development out past Watkins, but good luck getting approval for any road improvements for those houses, or that new shopping center to serve them.
It has the organizational effect of shackling the suburban counties to their urban core. Suburban or exurban gas tax money will be redirected to urban boutique “transit” like Denver bike lanes or a bus rapid transit, while the options for fleeing the city’s crime and congestion in the first place will be greatly reduced. The statewide urban planners don’t plan to permit a repeat of the 1970s flight to the suburbs.
CDOT argues that it has adopted a pose that is balanced between the cars that people actually love and the multimodal options that CDOT thinks they ought to be using. But that balance doesn’t translate into even-handedness, or even particularly good policy. The state is now committed to trying to build a $3 billion Front Range Passenger Rail system, that, even by its own optimistic projections, will take a mere 6,000 cars off of I-25. Today, years before these ridership totals are projected, hundreds of thousands of cars use I-25 north of Denver every day.
Shorting our highways
But you know what CDOT hasn’t identified funding for? Widening I-25 between Thornton and Longmont.
Even on I-70 west of Denver, CDOT’s choices seem questionable. They recently met with Buttigieg to beg for money to widen the road through the Floyd Hill area. Certainly, there are backups there; I’ve been caught in them. But traffic to the mountains is a little like foot traffic at a stadium — people arrive spread out over time, but leave all at once.
Of far greater concerns should be the approach to the Eisenhower Tunnel from the west, where the interstate narrows from three lanes to two. Every Sunday, every season, afternoon traffic bottlenecks there. A once-in-a-lifetime chance at improvements, as last year’s infrastructure bill was styled, would have been the perfect place to pitch widening the tunnels and the highway leading into Idaho Springs. But our two senators were nowhere to be heard from.
As luck would have it, CDOT may never even have to worry about approving big highway-expansion projects, anyway. That’s because the Biden administration is taking a similar approach, reimposing rules for environmental review that will tie such projects up in knots for many years, artificially raising costs, as noted by the Wall Street Journal:
“(The Council on Environmental Quality’s) new rule will require agencies to calculate the ‘indirect’ and ‘cumulative impacts’ that ‘can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time.’ This means death by a thousand regulatory cuts for many projects.
It’s as though your municipal trash collection service started going through your garbage and sending you notes about nutrition, and then started charging you extra if you didn’t eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and then was able to shrug and point to the guidance it was getting from the US Department of Agriculture, and claim that its hands were tied.
And it did all of this on its own, without needing legislative or executive oversight, without needing a vote of the people, under a comment process that is designed to avoid public scrutiny, geared toward activists and corporate lobbying umbrellas.
Motoring public disfranchised
If the citizens want to undo this, they need to elect a new governor and wait until the appointees’ terms expire, by which time many of the decisions made will already be far enough down the road that undoing them will be tremendously difficult.
Unfortunately, the Senate Transportation Committee in the legislature passed on an opportunity to rein in this runaway department. Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, had proposed a bill that would have changed the Transportation Commission from an appointed board to an elected one, with the commissioners tied to congressional districts.
This might actually have reduced geographical diversity from its current composition, given that the last two governors have had no problem finding central planners from all portions of the state. It would have likely guaranteed at least some ideological diversity.
Amusingly, CDOT itself argued with a straight face that having the governor appoint commissioners guaranteed a non-partisan board, an argument that, not surprisingly, resonated with the Democrat majority as they killed the bill on a party-line vote.
At this point, the only way of getting CDOT back in its box is to put such a measure on the ballot, or to elect a governor who will replace the current commissioners with ones less besotted by their own power.
Joshua Sharf is a senior fellow in fiscal policy at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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