Issue Backgrounders – Independence Institute

Issue Paper

By Dennis Polhill

By using the power of the market to help the T-REX project, congestion-free, free-flow traffic travel can be made available to both carpoolers and single occupant drivers. Further, $600 million can be pocketed by the state. By contrast, a decision to forego over a half billion dollars of desperately-needed transportation revenues will doom travelers to sit again in traffic congestion in the not-too-distant future.


T-REX, the transportation improvement to I-25 through the Denver Technological Center, is due to be completed in 2006 and will provide the long overdue capacity enhancement to the corridor.

Before T-REX, three traffic lanes in each direction served the area. The project is currently estimated at $1.7 billion(1), with the construction cost split roughly equally(2) between adding one traffic lane and light rail in each direction. T-REX will improve 19.7 miles of corridor.

1999 Election

The two transportation modes were implicitly joined by the November 1999 election. Voters authorized light rail construction contingent upon the Regional Transportation District’s promise that the Federal government would cover at least 60 percent of the rail cost.

Entire Paper – It’s Not Too Late: To Avoid Congestion After T-REX (PDF)

1 “TREX Budget Tops $1.7 Billion,” by Kevin Flynn, Rocky Mountain News, April 21, 2003.
2 “RTD estimates that the total cost of the rail project will be about $874 million.” Quoted directly from the 1999 voter guide, as written by RTD.

Issue Backgrounder

By Dennis Polhill, Matthew Edgar

The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) recently updated its Metro Vision 2020 Regional Transportation Plan. Although their transportation agenda is not directly stated, hints are revealed in their rhetoric. One stated mission is to offer a ‘variety of travel opportunities.’ As with all rhetoric this is a nice and non-agitating statement that no one would readily disagree with. But what does it really mean? A close look at their report reveals facts seen by few and understood by fewer.

Travel Demand

(Person Trips)

DRCOG predicts a 48% increase in travel demand by 2020 in the Denver Metro area:
increase in travel demand by 2020 in the Denver Metro area
Source: DRCOG Metro Vision 2020, Regional Transportation Plan, page 107

Transportation Investment

(Billions of Dollars)

DRCOG inventoried all sources and applications of transportation funding through 2020 and discovered that $9.63 billion of $16.93 billion (58.9%) will go to mass transit (buses and light rail). The rest of DRCOG’s money will go to all other forms of transportation, including, among other things, roads, bike paths, and sidewalks.
sources and applications of transportation funding through 2020
Source: DRCOG Metro Vision 2020, Regional Transportation Plan, page 107

Market Share


DRCOG predicts that mass transit’s share of all trips will grow from 1.53% to 2.23% in 2020, meaning that transit will accommodate just 4.04% of the new trips. Thus, if DRCOG’s numbers are accurate the benefit of applying 59% of transportation funding to mass transit will be a 0.7% increase in mass transit’s market share.
0.7% increase in mass transit’s market share
Source: DRCOG Metro Vision 2020, Regional Transportation Plan, page 101.

Summary and Conclusion

DRCOG’s ‘transit plan’ will nearly double severe freeway congestion by 2020. How can such a plan be acceptable? Is it because DRCOG dictates a single view, as NO information is provided in their plan about costs, benefits, or critical analysis of potential competing alternatives that might offer more mobility at less expense? DRCOG’s approach is like saying, ‘I like blue.’ The statement reveals nothing about green, yellow, or red.

DRCOG’s failure to offer analysis of other alternatives, which can compete with each other on the basis of costs and benefits, raises serious doubts about DRCOG’s objectivity, allowing pro-transit ideologues and pro-transit lobbyists to use the power of government to force their preconceived (and ill-conceived) agenda upon others and upon the political process.[1]

Copyright 2002, Independence Institute

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.

DENNIS POLHILL is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute.

MATTHEW EDGAR is a Research Associate with the Independence Institute.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES on this subject can be found at:

NOTHING WRITTEN here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

PERMISSION TO REPRINT this paper in whole or in part is hereby granted provided full credit is given to the Independence Institute.

[1] Additional detail is available in Independence Institute Opinion Editorial, ‘Colorado’s Anti-Transportation Policy’, by Dennis Polhill, September 20, 2000

Copies of DRCOG’s MetroVision 2020 report are available from DRCOG, 2480 W. 26th Ave., Suite 200B, Denver, CO 80211.

Issue Backgrounder

By Dennis Polhill


Both the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) can expect a dramatic reduction in highway and transportation funding from traditional sources over the next few years. Colorados highway network is already overrun with travelers, yet widened and expanded highways will not be pursued.


There exists unused space in Colorados High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, at locations such as I-25, Santa Fe Drive, and State Highway 82, as well as projected unused space in future HOV investments, such as North I-25 and U.S. 36. High Occupancy / Toll (HOT) lanes are a viable and desirable means of effectively using that excess space, without:

  1. reducing the congestion-free benefit of the lanes;
  2. eliminating the incentives to carpool or ride the bus; or
  3. requiring large capital expenditures.

HOT lanes are a politically acceptable and financially desirable means of extending transportation finance and travel choices. Furthermore, the private sector has shown demonstrable interest in using toll financing, such as HOT lanes, as a way of improving traffic in congested corridors.[1]


HOT lanes are not a new idea. They have been successfully implemented on State Route 91 (Orange County) and Interstate 15 (San Diego) in California, and Interstate 10 in Houston, Texas. HOT lanes continue to receive significant support from users and non-users alike. In fact, initial experiences with HOT lanes have been so successful that both states are moving forward with new highway capacity in San Diego, Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin and Houston to be financed, in part, with HOT lane revenue.


HOT lanes are a viable way of introducing the free marketplace to the realm of transportation infrastructure and services. The following policies are recommended:

The full use guarantee policy. In a time of declining transportation funding and increasing congestion, wasting space in HOV lanes should not be tolerated.

Requiring HOT flexibility. No Colorado agency should enter into an agreement that prohibits the flexibility of using HOT lanes.

Incorporate HOT Lanes as a standard option with HOV facilities. All Colorado HOV lanes should offer toll-based access to vehicles, where feasible.

End illegal discrimination against toll road users. Colorado’s constitution sets gasoline taxes aside for public highways. Thus, people who buy gasoline, thereby paying gas taxes, and who also pay tolls are being double taxed.

Transportation Issues

While the events of September 11th have intensified the need to allocate transportation funding to those activities most relevant to national security (primarily associated with the Federal Aviation Administration and the newly created Transportation Security Administration), transportation funding was already projected to decline in the United States and Colorado. However, congestion continues to increase at an alarming pace,[2] overtaxing the ability of Colorados highway system to accommodate traffic. Transportation investments are needed in order to ensure the states economic health.

High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, or carpool lanes as they are often called, currently feature unused space or as transportation planners refer to it, excess capacity. According to a recent study by CDOT, the I-25 HOV lanes achieve less than 30% peak period utility. That means that more than 70% of the capacity in HOV lanes is wasted during rush hours. Calculated over the hours that the HOV lanes are open, over 80% of the facility capacity is wasted. This means that the HOV lanes can actually accommodate several times the number of vehicles currently using the lanes, without causing any congestion or slowdown in these lanes.

The problem of excess capacity is already apparent to the public. One motorist, Dave Peterson, commented recently in the Denver Post,[3] They should open up the HOV lanes so everybody can use them. HOV lanes do serve a purpose, and they are successful at what they do: increasing vehicle occupancy, improving travel times for both the HOT Lane users and the fewer commuters left in the regular lanes, and reducing air emissions of vehicles in those lanes. All these benefits of HOV Lanes continue if the HOV Lanes become HOT Lanes.

Policy Definitions

High Occupancy / Toll (HOT) lanes are commonly applied as both a free market, value-added service, and as a demand-management strategy on roadways and busways. The policy is most relevant to the use of excess capacity in HOV lanes. By applying a variable toll, one that increases with increasing congestion and decreases with decreasing congestion, individual drivers make an on-the-spot decision as to whether the toll cost warrants use of the facility to receive the benefit of receiving a congestion-free trip. As demonstrated by HOT lanes elsewhere in the United States, the variable cost ensures that the demand for the facility is managed, such that congestion never occurs on the HOT lanes.

HOT lane revenue is used within the corridor that generates it; for example, HOT lane revenue can be used to pay off initial or expanded capital investment debt (such as original construction or extension of an HOV / HOT facility), maintenance of infrastructure on the facility, conversion of HOV lanes to HOT, or other upgrades within the project limits. In no currently implemented situation is HOT lane revenue seen as a general fund revenue source, nor should it be. Furthermore, current Colorado state law requires HOT lane revenue to be spent within the corridor from which it is generated.

California and Texas

HOT lanes have already been implemented on California State Route 91 in Orange County, I-15 in San Diego, and I-10 in Houston. California and Texas have been so satisfied with their experiences that both states are well underway to implementing expanded highway facilities that are financed, in part, by the use of HOT user fees. On all of the aforementioned facilities, carpooling and bus use increased[4] with the implementation of HOT lanes (contrary to the fears expressed by many alternative-mode advocates), congestion never occurred on the HOT lanes (again dispensing with a myth that HOT lanes might be overrun), congestion decreased slightly in the general-purpose lanes, and the public expressed greater satisfaction with these corridors than before HOT lanes. HOT lanes are a win-win proposition.

A December 2001 study by the San Diego Association of Governments regarding the existing HOT lanes on I-15 found the following results:[5]

  • 66% of non-users and 88% of HOT lane users approved of the I-15 HOT lanes;
  • 70% of all voters agreed with the statement, People who drive alone should be able to use the I-15 Express Lanes for a fee. Greater support was actually found among lower income voters (81% of less-than-$40,000-per-year) than higher income (71% of more-than-$100,000-per-year) voters.
  • 90% of HOT lane users and 73% of non-users stated that the HOT Lanes reduce congestion on I-15.
  • When asked what was the single most effective way to reduce congestion on I-15, voters stated:
    • Extend the HOT lanes (49% of HOT lane users; 37% of non-HOT lane users)
    • Add regular lanes (24% of HOT lane users; 26% of non-HOT lane users)
    • Build other roads (13% of HOT lane users; 21% of non-HOT lane users)
    • Add transit (10% of HOT lane users; 11% of non-HOT lane users)
  • Over 70% of both HOT lane users and non-users stated that having single-occupant vehicle use on I-15 express lanes was fair.

In short, those who oppose HOT lanes perpetuate two myths: 1) that HOT lanes will reduce carpooling and bus riding, thereby increasing congestion, and, 2) that the public will not support HOT lanes, due to concerns of fairness and equity. Clearly, the evidence from California and Texas shows these claims to be myths.

Previous Colorado Legislative Actions

In 1999, the Colorado state legislature passed Senate Bill 88, later adopted into law as the HOT Lane Act, and codified as Colorado Revised Statute 42-4-1012. This Act obligates the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to convert an existing HOV facility on I-25 to HOT lanes. Converting either of Colorados other two HOV facilities, State Highway 82 (Aspen corridor) and Santa Fe Drive (Denver), to HOT lanes was not technically feasible. This implied the best facility for conversion would be the I-25 Downtown Express in Denver.

As of February 2002, this had not yet occurred due to opposition from the Federal Transit Administration, and concerns cited by the City and County of Denver and the Regional Transportation District (RTD). CDOT continues negotiations for the conversion of the

I-25 Downtown Express HOV facility to HOT lanes.

Proposed HOT Legislation

The Colorado Transportation Center of the Independence Institute recommends additional legislative actions for the pursuit of HOT lanes. Colorado should not delay efforts to bring such a successful and desirable transportation policy to fruition.

The Full Use Guarantee Policy

Most people regard HOV lanes as a failure. The original purpose of HOV lanes was to reduce congestion by converting single-occupant vehicle drivers to either carpoolers or bus riders by offering a congestion-free alternative to general-purpose lanes. Since their adoption, though, growth in traffic has greatly outpaced the growth in carpooling and bus riding. Indeed, the 2000 census shows that these two modes of travel have actually declined as a percentage of all modes. As a result, HOV lanes remain underutilized while the adjacent general purpose lanes are often a virtual parking lot; at the peak, only 30% of the capacity of the I-25 HOV facility is utilized; the Santa Fe HOVs peak utilization is only 40%.

Despite the failure of these facilities, HOV lanes continue to be advanced by many interests. The U.S. 36 Major Investment Study concluded that a two-to-four lane HOV facility should be constructed along the length of U.S. 36. The North Front Range Corridor Investment Study offered a similar recommendation for I-25 north of Downtown Denver to Ft. Collins.

The Colorado General Assembly should adopt policies that benefit all taxpayers. In particular, all Colorado government agencies, including CDOT and RTD, must insure full use of all HOV facilities. Full use means that all available capacity during peak periods must be utilized, without degrading travel speeds or overall level of service within the HOV lanes. Such a policy would avoid the current public embarrassment of the I-25 HOV lanes. More than $222 million was spent on a facility that moves less than one-fifth of the vehicles it could without becoming congested. Spending millions of taxpayer dollars on an underused, unwanted facility is a poor, at best, policy.

The simplest way to ensure full use, without degrading the level of service on the corridor, is HOT Lanes. Full use also points in the direction of a more enlightened, more liberalized, less controlled and more decentralized application of many currently limited mobility alternatives that would yield both higher vehicle occupancy as well as maximum facility use.

Require Future HOT Lane Flexibility

The General Assembly should prohibit CDOT, RTD or any other agency using taxpayer funds from entering into any agreement for HOV lanes, highway extension, or highway lane expansion projects with the U.S. Department of Transportation or another agency when the agreement would limit the states flexibility in fully utilizing the available capacity on a corridor.

Such a policy would avoid the problems inherent with converting I-25s Downtown Express HOV facility to HOT lanes, wherein the Federal Transit Administration and RTD entered into a contract that prohibited the use of the facility by general-purpose vehicles. Federal Transit Administration officials have suggested that they may interpreted this clause to mean a prohibition on toll-paying users. It is bad policy to enter into agreements that concede dictatorial powers over operating decisions to minority contributors to the project.

Incorporate HOT Lanes as a Standard Option for HOV Facilities

The recent end result of a Minnesota legislatively required review of HOV lane use recommended that all new HOV lanes and all HOV lane conversions include the HOT lane buy-in feature.

The TREX construction project on southeast I-25 in Denver will include the use of three-person-plus HOV lanes as a traffic mitigation strategy. The contractors have stated that a two-person-plus HOV lane would be too crowded in order to provide a viable high-speed alternative for buses and high occupant vehicles. However, nationwide experience has shown that three-plus HOV lanes are grossly underutilized, creating the very underused highway space that so enrages the public.

The General Assembly should establish that construction mitigation activities on I-25 for the TREX project shall not allow any pavement to go underused. Although HOT lanes controlled by overhead electronic signage would be impractical for the TREX HOV lanes, as the contractors may need to change the geography of the lanes throughout the project, a weekly permit pass or other form of buy-in to the facility may be easy to implement. This alternative has already been tested successfully in California and Texas.

End illegal discrimination against toll road users

Article X, Section 18 of the Colorado Constitution states, the proceeds from the imposition of any excise tax on gasoline or other liquid motor fuel except aviation fuel used for aviation purposes shall, except costs of administration, be used exclusively for the construction, maintenance, and supervision of the public highways of this state

This provision is the reason that non-highway uses of gasoline, such as boating, farming and manufacturing, are credited or waived the gasoline tax. The purpose of the gasoline tax is to fund public highways. The treatment of toll road users differently is discriminatory and represents double taxation. They are being taxed for using public highways when they have instead paid separately for their highway use. Every day the State of Colorado violates the Colorado constitution by taking money unfairly from these people. Practical mechanisms to rebate these double taxes fairly should be developed and implemented soon, before irate citizens discover the abuse and seek recovery through the courts.

Electronic toll collection makes such rebates more practical than ever. The rebates can be made at the time of use, augmenting the market incentives that variable tolls offer in solving traffic congestion. At the very least, receipts for electronic-toll accounts could be used to offset individual and corporate income tax payments to the State of Colorado.

Additional Considerations

The largest barrier to the implementation of HOT lanes is false perception. Too often, initial perception of tolls is based upon experience with large toll operators on the East Coast. These perceptions, identified in outreach activities conducted by CDOT and others, include:

Tolls should only be used to finance construction; once its paid for, then tolls should disappear. This perception runs counter to the fact that HOT lanes control congestion. As such, tolls will always be desirable and should not expire.

Only the rich will use it. Often referred to by transportation practitioners as the equity argument, the person making the statement falsely assumes only the rich are willing to pay a little extra to save time. Its no different from the individual who buys a Honda Civic by choice, yet still resents the fact his neighbor bought a Mercedes C100. Experience shows that all income levels use HOT lanes, as evidenced by user data for the existing HOT lanes in California and Texas. The rationale is simply economic a single parent understands the financial benefit of paying $3 to use the HOT lanes in order to avoid the $20 late charge at day care.

Tolls cause congestion. This perception is based upon experiences on the East Coast, where queues awaiting the payment of tolls at toll plazas can be a considerable congestion bottleneck. HOT lanes avoid these situations by providing fully electronic payment mechanisms; there are no toll plazas, no queues, no delays, and no unnecessary safety risks on HOT lanes. Throughout the years of implementation in California and Texas, congestion has never occurred because of toll payments on these HOT lane facilities.

The highways are supposed to be free tolls are un-American. This perception stems from the implicit agreement established by the federal government in the 1950s to finance creation of the interstate highway system. Tolls were seen as a second tax; after all, the public has already paid for the highways through gasoline taxes, so why should there be tolls? Means of rebating either the tolls or taxes are possible and necessary; taxpayers recall too many unkept promises of temporary taxes to have confidence that they will not end up with both. The two states with gasoline tax rebate mechanisms (Massachusetts and New York) are so bureaucratically awkward that few ever get their refunds.


Evidence from the San Diego survey, cited above, dispels many falsely perceived myths about HOT lanes. Indeed, where HOT lanes are implemented, they are successful, benefiting all and supported by very large majorities. Colorado should not delay the implementation of positive transportation policies simply because a few people spread false myths. Those who oppose a HOT lane demonstration project in Colorado are not opposing a trial project because they fear that HOT lanes will fail. Rather, they oppose HOT lanes for the fear that they will, in fact, be successful. We can move more vehicles more quickly at no additional expense. Why dont we just do it? n

Copyright 2002, Independence Institute

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.

DENNIS POLHILL is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute. He is also a vital member of the Colorado Transportation Center at I.I., researching free market means to fulfill all Coloradans transportation needs.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES on this subject can be found at:

NOTHING WRITTEN here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

PERMISSION TO REPRINT this paper in whole or in part is hereby granted provided full credit is given to the Independence Institute.

[1] The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has already received five unsolicited bids from the private sector to construct HOT lanes and toll lanes on I-70 and C-470 in Denver.

[2] Urban Mobility Analysis, Texas Transportation Institute, 2000. Reports indicate the Denver metropolitan area has increased its percentage of extreme congestion during peak periods from 14% in 1992 to 28 % in 1996 to 37% in 1998. The percentage of lane-miles that rate as extreme congestion increased from 11% in 1992 to 34% in 1998.

[3] HOV Lanes Aside, US 36 Needs To Be Widened, Some Drivers Say, Denver Post, January 17, 2002, page 16A.

[4] A Report to the California Legislature: HOV Usage Increased Substantially By 49% on San Diegos I-15 during a three-year congestion pricing and transit development demonstration program, San Diego Association of Governments, pg. 17, Dec. 1999.

[5] Public Opinion Research: I-15 Managed Lanes Extension, Wilbur Smith Associates, as presented by Ed Regan, project manager, at the Annual Transportation Research Board conference on January 16, 2002. Survey of 800 (random digit dialing) users of the I-15 corridor, 600 of which are non-users of the HOT lanes, 200 are regular users of the HOT lanes. Survey has 95% confidence interval and is accurate within +/- 3.5%.

Issue Backgrounder

By Dennis Polhill

updated version of 2000-M


RTD is one of Colorado’s biggest and most obscure governments. Elections have not received sufficient public scrutiny, making control of the RTD Board a target for special interests.

What the Bill Does: S.B. 39 changes RTD Board elections to partisan elections and increases the compensation of elected Board members to $12,000 per year.


History of RTD — RTD came into existence as the product of two uncomfortable trends: the OPEC oil embargo and the rapid decline in mass transit use. At the same time that it was unclear whether automobile transportation would continue to be viable, it was equally unclear whether mass transit transportation could survive.

All over the country privately owned trolley companies were replaced by privately owned bus companies. With the continuing decline in market size, private bus companies closed and were replaced by government owned bus companies. The government owned bus companies received both tax subsidies and regulatory protections from competition so that market share might not erode further. The City of Denver found itself in the bus business in 1965.

To broaden the scope of services and to relieve Denver of the tax burden of the bus company, RTD was created legislatively. The RTD Board was legislatively appointed. Initial subsidies were comparatively small and were satisfied by a mishmash of fees and property taxes. In 1973 RTD went to voters with an aggressive plan. A new sales tax of 1/2 of one percent would be assessed for 10 years over the six-county metropolitan area and the revenue would be assigned 20% to expanded bus service and 80% to the construction of a 98-mile PRT (personal rapid transit) system.

Election irregularities and broken promises put a cloud over RTD, which seems to persist today. The special election was scheduled for the Friday after the Labor Day holiday, September 7, 1973. Proof of residency was needed to vote, not voter registration. Voter turnout was only 116,480, close to 10% of the population of that time. Polling places with the highest “no” votes ran out of ballots.

Because of Colorado’s lack of a petition process at the district level, citizen activists petitioned onto the November 1980 state ballot to change the RTD Board to a 15-member elected board. Responsible, unaffected rural voters abstained at shocking levels from voting on this issue. Therefore, it is unlikely that down state voting distorted the will of RTD constituents in the decision to go to an elected board.

History of RTD Board Elections — RTD’s first board election was November 1982. To phase into four-year overlapping terms, eight of the 15 seats were elected for two-year terms and seven were elected for four-year terms. In the afterglow of the 1980 election, where RTD was on the ballot for an elected board and for another tax increase to construct light rail, which was defeated, 1982 is indisputably RTD’s most competitive election ever. Fifty-nine candidates came out for the 15 seats, an average of 3.9 candidates per district. Only one district had an uncontested race with a single candidate. Nothing close to this level of competition has occurred since.

The official election records for 1984 have been lost. The Secretary of State did not start keeping RTD election data until 1990 and RTD seems to have misplaced their copy. The 1984 data is derived from post-election newspaper coverage. Eleven candidates ran for 8 seats. Four seats were uncontested.

In 1986 seven seats were up, and 13 candidates came out: three of seven seats were uncontested.

In 1988 11 candidates came out for eight races, yielding seven of eight seats as uncontested.

In 1990 10 candidates came out for seven seats. Five of seven were uncontested. But worse, one of the uncontested seats had no names on the ballot, because no candidate had taken the trouble to qualify. That seat was won with a write-in campaign that netted 61 votes.

In 1992 things got a little more competitive. Three of the eight seats up were contested. Four races had a single name on the ballot, but two of them received write-in opposition. The Littleton District had no names on the ballot but six candidates received write-ins.

1994 was the year of incumbent screw-ups. Seven seats were up by their regular cycle, but an eighth seat was up for a two-year term because of an appointment to fill a vacancy. The appointed incumbent did not know of her need to file petitions and did not file. Four other incumbents failed to acquire enough signatures to appear on the ballot. This left 12 candidates for 8 seats. Five of the 8 were uncontested. Had the incumbents been on the ballot, 1994 would have been the most competitive election since 1982.

In 1996 eight seats were up by the regular cycle and one two-year election was on the ballot due to an appointment to fill a vacancy. There were 20 candidates for the nine seats and three of the nine were uncontested.

In 1998 seven seats were up by the regular cycle and one two-year election was on the ballot due to an appointment to fill a vacancy. There were 21 candidates for eight seats and only one of the eight races was uncontested.

In 2000 eight seats were up by regular cycle with a ninth seat to fill a two-year vacancy. Two of the nine elections had two candidates and seven had a single, uncontested candidate.

Summary of Board Elections — In all of RTD’s election history 42 of 87 races (or 48.3%) have been uncontested. During RTD’s decade of least public visibility (1986 through 1994 inclusive), 25 of 38 races were uncontested for an uncontested rate of 65.8%. The 78% rate of uncontested elections in 2000 was exceeded only in 1988.

1982 15 59 1 7
1984 8 11 4 50
1986 7 13 3 43
1988 8 11 7 88
1990 7 10 5 71
1992 8 13 5 63
1994 8 12 5 63
1996 9 20 3 33
1998 8 21 1 13
2000 9 11 7 78

Note: Write-in candidates are not considered to be competitive and are not counted.

RTD’s Scale — RTD currently has 900 buses, 2,400 employees and a budget of $470 million. With the 1999 de-Brucing and light rail approval, RTD will soon be second only to the state government in size. For comparative purposes, a recent CDOT report revealed that it had 2,000 employees and $1,200 million in both state and federal gasoline taxes flowing through the HUTF (Highway Users Trust Fund) which is used both for CDOT and for all of Colorado’s cities and counties.

Analysis — RTD has spent millions of dollars on things that citizens do not want and which have not been approved. Though RTD Board elections were getting somewhat more competitive until 2000, RTD election competition, oversight, scrutiny, or accountability is far from sufficient as balanced against the magnitude of resources consumed. With partisan elections it is likely that there will be at least two solid, credible candidates for each RTD seat. Though this would make election more difficult for third party and independent candidates, partisan elections would clearly make RTD elections more competitive. S.B. 39 also requires that RTD plans conform with those of CDOT. CDOT involvement will do no harm and may, in fact, expedite cooperation between the agencies.

Prepared by Dennis Polhill, Senior Fellow, Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, CO.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

A century ago, with the exception of railroads, transportation in the United States was by dirt road. Similar to growing demand for mobility in today’s third world economies, the push to get America out of the mud in the early twentieth century was led by bicycle enthusiasts. Automobile ownership was a novelty. But when rising personal wealth met declining automobile costs–thanks to Henry Fords assembly line for the Model T–more and more people began to enjoy automobile ownership. The trend is irreversible.

Visionaries foresaw superhighways. The first plan was finalized in the 1930s. Planning for highway construction was accelerated during World War II–partly to ensure that ex-soldiers would have jobs when the war ended. Planners also saw the mobility advantage that the Autobahns gave to the German army, as forces could be moved rapidly from one part of the country to the other.

Financing was a problem because automobile ownership was still relatively small, war debt was high, and highway use and requisite support systems were still in their infancy.

The U.S. Constitution was also a problem. Nowhere did the Constitution give Congress authority over transportation. Three of the greatest presidents — Madison, Monroe, and Jackson — had vetoed as unconstitutional efforts by Congress to intrude into transportation, such as by creating national roads.

In 1956, Congress found a way to circumvent the Constitution. Federal road-building would fly under the banner of the “National Defense Highway Act.” Congress did have authority over national defense, and highways did help national defense. All Interstate highways would be owned and operated by the states. The user-fee debate was decided in favor of the gasoline tax over tolls. A critical consideration was that tolls would discourage increased car use and greater car use was needed to aid financing. The “temporary” 4 cents per gallon Federal gasoline tax would cease when the 40,000 mile network was competed.

Every dollar spent on construction yielded five dollars in direct economic benefits. Travel time between cities such Pittsburgh and Philadelphia plunged. It became easier and cheaper to transport goods between producers and markets. One cause of the prosperity of the 1960s was the increased wealth and efficiency generated by the new interstate highway system–the Internet of its time.

The years went by. Construction was completed before 1985. The Federal gasoline tax grew to 18.4 cents. The Constitutional issue was forgotten. Use grew, further augmenting revenues. Special interests began tapping into the Highway Trust Fund. The gas tax has been perverted into a general funding source for airports, waterways, buses, Amtrak, the Coast Guard, light rail, and the national debt. Two-thirds of the states put more money into the Highway Fund than they get back. Money recovered is subject to innumerable conditions and delays.

Colorados transportation philosophy has been a victim of the schizophrenic attitude toward population growth. Over the long term, Colorado has experienced growth at about 2% per year. When growth is less, there is concern; when growth is more, exclusionists call for less. The anti-growth assumption is that if transportation were less efficient, fewer people would move here.

Special interests have succeeded at politicizing transportation. DRCOG (Denver Regional Council of Governments) recently updated its Metro Vision 2020, Regional Transportation Plan. Variety of travel opportunities is weighted more heavily than meeting the needs of taxpayers. Perhaps DRCOG, as a vestige of the outmoded Central Planning era, has outlived its usefulness.

Of the $16.34 billion available in the Denver Region to address transportation, nearly 60%, or $9.63 billion, are for government transit. This funding will increase light and commuter rail by 1400% and highway capacity by 24.5%–even though travel demand is projected to rise 48%. The 23.5% highway deficiency (48% minus 24.5%) is a measure of how much worse Colorado highways are going to get.  Government transit gets the lion’s share of funding, but  picks up only 4.04% of the additional demand. DRCOG predicts, accurately, that “severe congestion will increase significantly.”

If Colorado’s anti-transportation policy is not soon reversed, the consequences will be dire.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden,

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.
Please send comments to Editorial Coordinator, Independence Institute, 14142 Denver West Pkwy., suite 185, Golden, CO 80401 Phone 303-279-6536 (fax) 303-279-4176 (email)

Copyright 2000

Issue Backgrounder

By Dennis Polhill
Synopsis — High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes use electronic toll collection technology to collect tolls at full speed. Surplus HOV lane capacity can be utilized, traffic congestion can be reduced and revenues are generated to offset transportation costs. Transportation constituencies all over the U.S. are finding common ground in supporting this free-market application.

S.B. 99-88 —Senate Bill 1999-88 is similar to a 1998 CDOT sponsored bill. The HOT lane provision was deleted from the 1998 bill because of the assertion that only the rich would benefit. The 1999 bill authorizes and directs CDOT to convert an existing HOV lane project to HOT lanes.

Congestion assessment —The cost of traffic congestion greatly exceeds the cost of eliminating it. Time wasted in traffic jams is a major loss to the Denver metro economy. At the same time it should be pointed out that fewer than 10% of highways are ever congested; and congested roads are not congested most of the time. It would be theoretically possible to move 10 times as many vehicles through the existing highway infrastructure, if someone would just tell people when they could use it.

Problem definition —The traffic congestion problem is that too many people are trying to use the same system at the same time.

Solution theory —Because the problem is related to scarcity of resources, a system to allocate, prioritize or ration the resources must be invented. Fortunately, Adam Smith and other great thinkers have done the hard work of inventing capitalism. Contemporary policy advocates share the benefit of over 200 years of real world experience with Smiths ideas. Allocation of scarce resources is done most efficiently by empowering individual consumers to exercise choice through pricing systems.

Private sector experience —All Americans experience the power of markets every day. The same product often costs more when demand is high: like long distance telephone service. Rates are highest during business hours and are lowest when most people are sleeping. Other examples are airline tickets, hotel rooms, roses (more expensive around Valentines Day), and movie tickets.

User fees —Historically the most efficient user fee to finance transportation has been the gasoline tax. Everyone paid the gas tax and everyone used the roads. The more people used, the more they paid. But technology has improved and it is now possible to assign user fees directly to those using the system at the time they are using it.

Technological advances —In 1991 the Oklahoma Turnpike implemented electronic toll collection (ETC). E-470 uses the same technology. A transponder (an audio cassette size radio frequency transmitter) fixed on the windshield is read at full travel speed and tolls are charged to the users account. Both Oklahoma and E-470 are fixed toll facilities, where all users always pay the same toll. California took the technology to the next level in 1995 by applying it to just 2 of 6 lanes in each direction on the 91 Freeway in Orange County. These are called High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The remaining 4 lanes continue to be “free” lanes. Tolls in the HOT lanes vary to insure that traffic flow is never congested. Thus, drivers can choose as their individual needs dictate.

Choice —The “choice” point cannot be overstated. Everyone has some emergencies in their life that justify paying extra for a higher level of service: a medical emergencies, meeting an airplane, getting to a daughters soccer game, or avoiding a late fee. Nearly half of those who use the California 91 Freeway HOT lanes use them only once per week.

“Lexus Lanes” — The California Polytechnic Institute recently released a 4 year study of the California 91 Freeway HOT lanes. It found that the demographics of those who use the 91 Freeway HOT lanes are nearly identical to those who use the “free” lanes. Clearly the pejorative “Lexus Lane” term is false and is designed by HOT lane opponents to mislead.

Taxpayer benefits —Because users are paying tolls, a revenue stream is available to offset some construction costs. Thus, less money is needed from general taxation for roads.

Benefits to nonusers of HOT lanes — Because some vehicles are removed from the adjacent “free” lanes, traffic congestion also decreases in the “free” lanes. The CalPoly study found that 52% of those people who never used the California 91 Freeway HOT lanes favored them. Trip times in the “free” lanes are typically about 10 minutes faster.

Environmental benefits —The California Air Resources Board determined that air pollution emissions are 250% higher under congested conditions than during free-flowing traffic. So when traffic congestion exists, not only are people frustrated by not getting where they need to go, but they cause additional air pollution by not getting there. Clearly, HOT lanes reduce air pollution by reducing traffic congestion. Because HOT lanes also reduce traffic congestion in “free” lanes, they also help reduce air pollution emissions in the “free” lanes. Led by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Oregon Environmental Council, environmental groups all over the country have come to endorse HOT lanes. Many others, like the Sierra Club and the EPA, endorse the broader and related concept of congestion pricing.

High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) —The theory of HOVs is that vehicles with more than one person receive preference (in the form of dedicated special purpose HOV lanes) as an incentive to carpool. When the HOV lanes are full and free-flowing, they move more people than a general purpose lane. In November the state of New Jersey fueled a growing nationwide controversy by opening some HOV lanes to general traffic because they were not full with HOVs.

In spite of the availability of dedicated HOV lanes, car pooling is on the decline.

But even where HOVs work, they can be a victim of their own success. When HOV lanes become congested with HOVs, the typical operational response is to restrict HOV lane use to vehicles with 3 rather than 2 passengers per vehicle. This decision always results in moving fewer people quickly with some HOV lane capacity wasted. HOT lane technology provides the capability to use surplus capacity with no injury to HOVs.

HOVs in the California 91 Freeway HOT lanes were initially charged no toll, but are now paying a 50% toll. Eventually the HOT lane operator will cease subsidizing HOVs and all will pay tolls equally. To the extent that HOVs merit subsidy, it can be provided via other methods.

–Dennis Polhill, Senior Fellow in Transportation Policy, Independence Institute