Use road taxes for our roads

Denver Post 03/22/2013

By Brian T. Schwartz, PhD. and Dennis Polhill, P.E.

Drivers can get more mileage from fuel taxes they already pay. But some states are considering increasing their fuel tax. It’s a bad idea.

Much of Colorado’s existing 22 cents-per-gallon fuel tax does not maintain roads. Fuel taxes penalize less-wealthy drivers and encourage traffic congestion. There are better ways to finance roads.

Instead of increasing taxes, the Colorado legislature should stop spending current fuel-tax revenue on rail transit and other boondoggles. For every dollar from state and local fuel and vehicle taxes, more than 19 cents supports “mass transit purposes,” according to 2010 federal highway statistics. Just as non-drivers should not subsidize roads, drivers’ taxes should not subsidize other services.

Some argue that mass-transit benefits drivers by reducing traffic, so drivers should fund it. Nonsense. By such reasoning, government should force drivers to subsidize brakes for tractor-trailers because drivers benefit when huge trucks have functioning brakes.

The federal fuel tax is worse. “Only about 60 percent of the gas tax money … goes into highway and bridge construction,” former Transportation secretary Mary Peters told PBS.

A Heritage Foundation analysis of the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) concurs: “[M]otorists will receive only about 62 percent of what they have paid into the fund for general purpose roads and safety programs.”

The HTF is worse for Colorado drivers, who send the fund much more than Colorado gets back. Colorado would be better off keeping those dollars in state. According to the Government Accountability Office, if Colorado could opt out of the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal fuel tax, it “could achieve the same funding level” it receives from the HTF with a replacement tax of just 13.8 cents-per-gallon. That’s a 25 percent savings.

The Colorado legislature and congressional delegation should work with other shortchanged states to opt out of the HTF. No longer would Coloradans send fuel and other taxes to Washington, only to get a fraction back with strings attached.

Regardless of how governments spend fuel tax revenue, imposing fuel taxes to finance roads is unfair to less-wealthy drivers, who tend to drive older, less fuel-efficient cars.

Fuel taxes also promote traffic congestion, which wastes time and wealth. Rush hour occurs because the price for road use — fuel taxes — does not increase during peak-demand hours.

How bad is congestion? Around Denver and Aurora, the annual travel time delay per commuter was 45 hours, consuming 20 gallons of fuel, reports the Texas Transportation Institute. Congestion leads to dirtier air, too. Excess fuel burned annually around Denver and Aurora exceeded 34.5 million gallons, releasing over 300,000 tons of CO2.

Instead of increasing taxes, Colorado’s legislature should explore better alternatives to road financing. The Independence Institute’s Citizens’ Budget project advocates expanding high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to all lanes on controlled-access expressways. These roads can become self-financing, and fuel tax revenues can be reallocated to lower-capacity roads.

Electronic tolling can reduce traffic congestion by decreasing tolls during off-peak hours. By charging for road use instead of fuel purchased, tolls don’t punish those with less fuel-efficient cars. Colorado should extend its fuel tax refund, so toll payers can recoup fuel taxes paid for miles they drove on toll roads.

Fuel taxes are unfair and wasteful. There are better alternatives. Instead of increasing the fuel tax, Colorado’s elected officials should ensure that its current revenue actually funds in-state roads, as required by the Colorado Constitution, rather than continuing to divert it to other purposes, and to other states.

Brian T. Schwartz and Dennis Polhill are senior fellows at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank.

Is More Mobility at Less Expense Possible?

By Will Toor and Dennis Polhill


In most arenas, we are used to the notion that you pay for what you get. Intuitively, we all understand that if you offer something for free that really has a cost, demand is going to exceed supply. Now, society has decided that some things should be collectively paid for with tax dollars. The two authors of this article have widely differing views on the appropriate levels of public expenditures in areas like education and health care.


One area where we do agree is that there would be great benefits – for our economy and our environment – in bringing more market forces to play in transportation. Currently, our roads are paid for by a complicated and irrational mix of funding sources including gas tax, sales tax, property tax, registration and other fees. Most parking spaces are paid through sales and property tax, or the cost is hidden in higher prices for goods and services. Gas tax revenues will continue to struggle to keep pace with construction cost inflation making maintenance of existing roads increasingly difficult.


Switching more of the costs of roads and parking to user fees, similar to how the gas tax once worked, would be fairer –those who use more should pay more and those who use less pay less.   User-fee systems can also help roads perform better by reducing congestion, reducing the need for infrastructure investments, increasing transit ridership and reducing emissions. Better transportation at less expense to taxpayers and an improved quality of life is truly a vision that all should unite behind.


Consider a congested freeway. When the lanes are free flowing, some can carry up to 2,000 vehicles an hour. When a lane gets overloaded, it switches to stop and go traffic, and the capacity drops dramatically, often moving close to a thousand vehicles an hour. When drivers are charged a toll that increases when traffic gets heavy, people make different decisions. Some switch trips to less congested times or take different routes. Others carpool or use transit. The highway keeps flowing freely, uncongested. SR 91 in Orange County, California provides an instructive example. This is a 12 lane highway, with 4 free lanes and 2 tolled express lanes in each direction. During rush hour, the free lanes crawl along at stop and go speeds, while the 2 express lanes carry nearly as many vehicles as the 4 free lanes.


Colorado has begun to move toward roadway pricing. In 2006, the I-25 HOV lane was converted to a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane, selling unused capacity to toll paying drivers. Right now, one HOT lane in each direction is under construction along US 36 between Denver and Boulder. US 36 will combine a toll lane with Bus Rapid Transit service, allowing transit riders faster and more flexible service than they could get from a train, at much lower cost to build. If we had just added a free lane in each direction, the free lane would eventually fill up, giving no long-term benefits to drivers and there would be no platform for faster transit service.


The biggest benefits will come when we are ready to start pricing existing lanes. Since each tolled lane will generally carry more vehicles freely during rush hour, while providing a platform for bus rapid transit service, tolling existing lanes can provide benefits without having to pay to expand the highway! This would free up tax revenues and let toll revenue fund other improvements within the corridor instead of just paying for construction. The political climate and societal awareness of the benefits of market principles is evolving to embrace this kind of innovation – now is the time to start exploring future possibilities.


For example, as a next step, could we convert some existing lanes on large highways to managed lanes, while leaving some lanes free, as a cost effective and sustainable alternative to expanding the highway?   After nearly two billion dollars to widen I-25 T-Rex, in just one decade it is already approaching pre-expansion levels of congestion. Could we consider taking 2 lanes in each direction for HOT lanes that would provide an alternative to congestion and generate money to cover operating costs, accelerate debt repayment and help pay for travel options? It may be hard to picture this being approved today – but as T-Rex commuters sitting in traffic watch travelers on US 36 and other corridors get an alternative to congestion, public attitudes will change.


Instead of requiring ever increasing amounts of revenue to build underutilized infrastructure, market principles, connecting the costs and benefits of services, can help gain more use from infrastructure and benefit us all.


Bio: The two authors of this commentary – one the director of Transportation Policy at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and a liberal Democrat who spent 15 years in public office, the other a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free market think tank, have widely differing opinions on many questions.

Better Motorcoach Trip Times

By Brian T. Schwartz and Dennis Polhill

Road-users can get more mileage from fuel taxes they already pay. But some federal officials and states are considering increasing fuel or other taxes. Bad ideas.

Much of the current fuel tax does not maintain roads. Fuel taxes penalize less-wealthy drivers and encourage traffic congestion. There are better ways to finance roads.

Instead of increasing taxes, political leaders should stop spending current fuel-tax revenue on rail transit and other boondoggles. For every dollar from federal fuel taxes, more than 17 cents supports “mass transit purposes,” according to 2011 federal highway statistics. Just as non-drivers should not subsidize roads, drivers’ taxes should not subsidize other services.

Some argue that mass-transit benefits drivers by reducing traffic, so drivers should fund it. Nonsense. By such reasoning, government should force drivers to subsidize brakes for tractor-trailers because drivers benefit when huge trucks have functioning brakes.

“Only about 60 percent of the gas tax money … goes into highway and bridge construction,” former Transportation secretary Mary Peters told PBS.

A Heritage Foundation analysis of the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) concurs: “[M]otorists will receive only about 62 percent of what they have paid into the fund for general purpose roads and safety programs.”

The HTF is even worse for most states. The majority of states send the fund more gas tax money than they get back. States would be better off keeping their own dollars. According to the Government Accountability Office, 27 states receive less than they contribute to HTF. Of the states that receive redistributions at the expense of the 27 states, those benefits are diminished in 13 of the 23 states because they contribute more federal gas tax funds to subsidize public transit in other states than they receive.

Those 40 shortchanged states should work together to opt out of the failing Federal and too-politicized HTF system. Worthy of consideration is Utah Senator, Mike Lee’s Transportation Empowerment Act that decreases over 5 years the Federal gas tax from 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents.

Regardless of how governments spend fuel tax revenue, imposing fuel taxes to finance roads is unfair to less-wealthy drivers, who tend to drive older, less fuel-efficient cars.

Fuel taxes also promote traffic congestion, which wastes time and wealth. Rush hour occurs because the price for road use — fuel taxes — does not increase during peak-demand hours.

How bad is congestion? Perhaps the only thing worse to the motor coach industry than a slow trip is an unreliable trip. Annually the Texas Transportation Institute updates the Urban Mobility Report. The 2012 TTI UMR put the annual cost of traffic congestion nationally at $121 billion. With annual costs approaching the cost to eliminate traffic congestion and no resolution in sight via government leadership, toll roads have begun to mushroom. Since 2003 toll road revenues nationwide have grown in excess of 30% per year.

Eradication of traffic congestion will yield benefits beyond greatly improving the value of the motor coach industry. Less congestion means less wasted fuel and fewer emissions. TTI estimates 2.9 billion gallons of fuel wasted nationwide in 2011 due to traffic congestion.

Instead of increasing taxes, better ways to finance road should be explored. Congress can lead by allowing 50 states to become laboratories for innovation. The fuel tax should be retained only until appropriate market financing systems can be implemented. As the express roads become self-financing, fuel tax revenues can be reallocated to maintain lower-capacity roads.

Lower tolls during off-peak hours using demand-managed electronic tolls reduce traffic congestion by encouraging off-peak driving. By charging for road use instead of fuel purchased, tolls don’t punish those with less fuel-efficient vehicles. To be fair to toll-payers fuel taxes should be refunded when tolls are paid.

When roads become self-financed through tolls, decisions will become less politicized. Repairs will happen faster and will be better targeted. Capital improvements will be quicker and less obtrusive to routine functioning of the surrounding world. Politicians and special interest groups will have to go elsewhere to finds funds for their personal whims. Diversion of funds to subsidize direct competition to motor coach operators will be more difficult and less common.

Fuel taxes are unfair and wasteful. There are better alternatives. Instead of increasing the fuel tax, elected officials should ensure that revenue actually funds roads, rather than continuing to divert it to other purposes.

Brian T. Schwartz and Dennis Polhill are Senior Fellows at the Independence Institute, the Colorado free-market think tank. This article appeared in the December 15, 2013 issue of Bus and Motorcoach News.

A chance to devolve transportation power and money back to the states


by Dennis Polhill

December 8, 2013 Denver Post


For decades U.S. transportation policy has been stagnant. Because about half of gasoline taxes cycle through Washington, D.C, cost-sharing and benefits in transportation are distorted. A new bill offers a chance to restore the balance.

The Transportation Empowerment Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R–UT) and Representative Tom Graves (R-GA) gradually would lower the federal gas tax from the current 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon over 5 years. The legislation also would lift federal restrictions on state Departments of Transportation.

The most recent U.S. Government Accountability Office study of gas tax redistribution among states shows that nearly 5 cents of the federal 18.4 cents per gallon tax paid by Colorado motorists ends up in other states. Keeping Colorado money in Colorado would mean the equivalent of a 5-cent gas tax increase, or nearly $100 million per year in new transportation funding.

Not only would devolving the federal gas tax to the states result in a major boon to Colorado roads and bridges, it also would honor a promise made to the American people more than 50 years ago. In 1956 Congress passed the National Defense Highway Act to construct the Interstate Highway system. The temporary federal gas tax was promised to expire when construction was completed.

For all practical purposes interstate highway construction was finished in 1982. Unfortunately, taxes almost never go away, or get smaller. Nor do government agencies or programs. Coincidentally, 1982 marks the same year roads outside the interstate system became eligible for federal funding. By tripling eligible mileage, the U.S. Department of Transportation used road revenues to fund other things more aggressively. Increasing amounts of gas tax revenue were siphoned to fund non-road programs, and congressional earmarks mushroomed.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s book Breach of Trust documents a common practice. Each member of Congress is rewarded with a $15 million earmark for a chosen project in exchange for his vote to continue the federal gas tax.

Since 2008 federal gas tax revenues have not kept pace with vehicle miles driven and fuel efficiency gains. Rather than diminish the spending, though, Congress has backfilled the funding of transportation with revenue from the general fund.

The irresponsible tactic of accelerating the national debt to fund transportation pork has helped to silence the states on the question as to which states are being enriched at the expense of others.

Congress has created the perception that all states are enriched by federal largess, while Congress uses the money to keep control over any state that might stray into finding innovative solutions.

It is worth noting that the federal government does not own or operate any transportation infrastructure (other than roads in national parks, etc.). Normal roads, highways, streets, airports, and transit stations are owned by states, counties, cities or districts, making the cycling of funds thru D.C. questionable.

The title of the 1956 legislation (National Defense Highway Act) was not a typo. Not only were the roads built in part for national defense purposes, but the title also allowed Congress to sidestep the constitutional prohibition on federal spending for local transportation.

The controversy over federal involvement in transportation arose in the Early Republic. President Jefferson informed Congress on December 2, 1806, that he might support a constitutional amendment to allow federal involvement, but that without an amendment, the federal government had no authority over road-building. At least eight presidents, including Madison, issued no less than 19 vetoes of transportation bills as “unconstitutional.” Monroe’s only veto was of a transportation bill, but he issued two veto messages in an effort to help Congress understand.

If the Transportation Empowerment Act were to pass, most states probably would raise state gas taxes by an amount equal to the federal decrease. Revenue neutrality would yield a significant funding boost to transportation, particularly for states such as Colorado. The net revenue for gas tax money which is raised in the states returning to the states is less than 70 percent. But even that figure does not account for funding delays and the attached strings, nor for redistribution from one state to another.

Citizens who favor more highway funding dollars staying in Colorado should take a close look at the Lee/Graves bill.

Dennis Polhill is senior fellow in public infrastructure at the Independence Institute, a free market think thank in Denver










By Dennis Polhill

Research assistance by

Dominque Tarpey and Steve McWhirter





Presented at

American Legislative Exchange Council

Seattle, Washington

July 2004






At least 9 Presidents of the United States

issued public statements to Congress

indicating that the U.S. Constitution

required amending before

the Federal government could

become involved in Transportation policy.

In 2004 the question is rarely raised.




The controversy over whether the Federal government is permitted by the Constitution to be involved in transportation improvements began soon after adoption of the Constitution.

At least nine United States Presidents very strongly believed that the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution excluded Federal involvement in transportation improvements.  Evidence of their convictions is expressed in unmistakable terms in their veto messages.

CUMBERLAND ROAD – An ambiguity that emerged from early American history is the Cumberland Road.   The first Federal funded highway connected the head of navigation on the Potomac River (Cumberland, Maryland) to the head of navigation on the Ohio River (Wheeling, West Virginia).  Construction was authorized by Congress on March 29, 1806.  Contracts were issued in 1811, but the War of 1812 interfered and construction did not begin until 1815 and was finished in 1818.  America’s eagerness to solidify its claims on western lands was in conflict with Constitutional limitations on Federal authority.

In 1803 Congress passed the 5 percent law.  Five percent of the revenue generated from the sale of Federally owned public lands was deposited into a fund.  Funds generated from 60% of the five percent (three percent) were granted to the States upon admission to the Union for roads, canals, levees, river improvements and schools.  Funds generated from the remainder, two percent, were dedicated for constructing roads “to and through” the West.  Bitter debate ensued when the two percent funds were allocated in 1806 to build the Cumberland Road.  Jefferson chose expediency by not vetoing the bill, but issued his important message[1] to Congress later in 1806 suggesting that the Constitution should be amended to allow Federal involvement in “internal improvements.”

The Cumberland Road became so heavily used that it fell into disrepair.  When Congress sought to again intervene by establishing tolls for maintenance in 1822, Monroe issued his only veto, arguing that Federal collection of tolls implied a power of jurisdiction, that was not granted to the Federal government by the Constitution.  By 1835 the Cumberland Road was known as the National Road and extended into Illinois.  The dilemma was resolved when control was devolved to the respective States that operated it as a toll facility until toll roads were bankrupted by railroad competition.


JEFFERSON – In his December 2, 1806 message to Congress, President Thomas Jefferson considered the problem of a revenue surplus.  Reduction of the import duty on salt would give “advantage to foreign over domestic manufactures.”  Jefferson recommended “continuance and application to the great purposes of the public education, roads, rivers, canals, and such other objects of public improvement as it may be thought proper to add to the constitutional enumeration of federal powers.”  That is, Jefferson favored acceleration of Federal sponsorship, but was of the view that the U.S. Constitution must be amended to allow it.

Jefferson commented again on this topic in a February 14, 1824 thank you letter to Robert J. Garnett.  Garrett had given a copy of a book by Colonel Taylor, “New Views of the Constitution.”  The letter mentioned “the three great questions of amendment:” presidential term limits, popular election of the president, and giving to Congress the power over internal improvement on the condition that each State’s federal proportion of the moneys so expended, shall be employed in the State.

MADISON – James Madison, author of the U.S. Constitution, succeeded Jefferson as President in 1808.  In Madison’s last official act as President he issued a veto on March 3, 1817.  The bill, passed in February 1817, provided for setting aside the Bank bonus of $1,500,000 as a permanent fund for internal improvements.  To circumvent the constitutional prohibition, the bill language cleverly mixed rhetoric including “internal commerce,” “general welfare,” and “common defense.”  Madison replied specifically to each of these claims of authority.

Madison favored the policy but vetoed the bill as unconstitutional, “I am constrained, by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States.”[2]

He refers Congress to the Constitution, “The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the 8th section of the first article.”  He adds, “The power to regulate commerce among the several States, cannot include a power to construct roads … without a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms.”

“To refer to the power in question as ‘common defense and general welfare,’ would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation … such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation … It would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and laws of the several States, in all cases not specifically exempted, to be superseded by laws of Congress.”  Finally, Madison points out “the assent of the States … cannot confer the power.”  In other words the states must agree by amending the Constitution, but may not agree to ignore its structurally imposed limitations on Congressional powers.  In the final paragraph Madison asserts, “that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State government, and that no adequate land-marks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress, as proposed in the bill.”

Madison’s veto message closed with sympathy for the policy objective, “I am not unaware of the great importance of roads … and hope that (the bill’s) beneficial objects may be attained …”

MONROE – James Monroe was elected in 1816 to succeed Madison.  His only veto was issued on May 4, 1822.  Monroe, like Madison and Jefferson, approved of the policy, but vetoed the Cumberland Road Bill as unconstitutional, “Congress does not possess the power under the Constitution to pass such a law.”[3]  Monroe reiterated Madison’s points, “This power can be granted only by an amendment to the Constitution.”  In addition to the indirect claims of authority refuted in Madison’s veto (commerce, general welfare and common defense), the Cumberland Road Bill claimed Congressional authority under post roads, the power to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution all the powers vested by the Constitution in the government, and the power to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory and other property of the United States.  Monroe, “it cannot be derived from either of those powers, nor from all of them united, and as a consequence it does not exist.”  He closes by suggesting that “Congress (exercise) the propriety of recommending to the states an amendment to the Constitution.”  Monroe’s veto message is brief, less than two pages in the Congressional Record, but he elaborates exhaustively in his May 4, 1822 “Views of the President of the United States on the Subject of Internal Improvements.”  This document is nearly 30,000 words, is not part of the Congressional Record.[4]

JACKSON -Congress became more aggressive.  Andrew Jackson (President 1828-1836) vetoed four transportation bills as unconstitutional.  Like his predecessors he favored federal participation in internal improvements, but understood the Constitution as not allowing, and therefore prohibiting, it.  Jackson offered support to advancing the necessary Constitutional amendment by suggesting public agreement made the amendment possible, “If it be the wish of the people that the construction of roads and canals should be conducted by the Federal Government, it is not only highly expedient, but indispensably necessary, that a previous amendment of the Constitution, delegating the necessary power, and defining and restricting its exercise with reference to the sovereignty of the States, should be made.”  In other words, public consent made an amendment achievable and preservation of both the Constitution and State sovereignty requires it.  Congress elected to not advance the suggested Constitutional Amendment.

The Maysville, Washington, Paris, and Lexington Turnpike Road Company was vetoed as “unconstitutional”[5] on May 27, 1830.  This is one of the longer veto messages consuming 10 pages (over 6,000 words) in the House Journal.  Jackson reviewed the history of his predecessors on the question and summarized the arguments on both sides of the issue.  In the end he agreed with his predecessor-Presidents, “When an honest observance of Constitutional compacts cannot be obtained from communities like ours, it need not be anticipated elsewhere; and the cause in which there has been so much martyrdom, and from which so much was expected by the friends of liberty, may be abandoned, and the degrading truth, that man is unfit for self government, admitted.  And this will be the case, if expediency be made a rule of construction in interpreting the Constitution … No good motive can be assigned for the exercise of power by the constituted authorities, while those for whose benefit it is to be exercised have not conferred it.”

Jackson’s Maysville veto message reiterates language from the Monroe veto message supplement, which evolved into another criterion, “purely local character,” that appears in subsequent vetoes in various forms.  This is discussed in a subsequent section.

The Washington Turnpike Road Company was vetoed as “unconstitutional”[6] on May 31, 1830.

Jackson’s next “unconstitutional” veto was of “An Act to authorize subscription for stock in the Louisville and Portland Canal Company” passed near adjournment and he provided the veto message to Congress on December 7, 1830.  Again he refers Congress to the Maysville veto for edification.  “The practice of thus mingling the concerns of the government with those of the States or of individuals, is inconsistent with the object of its institution.  The successful operation of the federal system can only be preserved by confining it to the few and simple, but yet important objects for which it was designed.  A different practice, if allowed to progress, would ultimately change the character of this Government, by consolidating into one the General and State Governments, which were intended to be kept forever distinct.”[7]

Jackson’s last transportation veto as “unconstitutional” came on December 2, 1834 of “An Act to improve the navigation of the Wabash River.”  “I cannot refrain from expressing my increasing conviction of its extreme importance, as well in regard to its bearing upon the maintenance of the Constitution … the dangers of unconstitutional acts which, instead of menacing the vengeance of offended authority, proffer local advantages, and bring in their train the patronage …in my opinion, the Constitution did not confer upon (Congress) the power to authorize the construction of ordinary roads and canals … I could not consider myself as discharging my duty to my constituents in giving the Executive sanction to any bill containing such an appropriation.”[8]

TYLER – John Tyler vetoed as “unconstitutional” “An Act making appropriations for the improvement of certain harbors and rivers,” on June 11, 1844.  “At the adoption of the Constitution, each State was possessed of independent sovereignty … (which) expressly reserve(d) to the States all powers not delegated … (Congressional) power, in order to be legitimate must be clearly and plainly incidental to some granted power, and necessary to its exercise.  To refer it to the head of convenience or usefulness would be to throw open the door to a boundless and unlimited discretion and to invest Congress with an unrestrained authority.”[9]

Tyler also pocket-vetoed “An Act making appropriations for the improvement of the navigation of certain rivers” on January 28, 1845, but issued no veto message, suggesting that he had said all that he wished to say on the issue in his June 11, 1844 veto message.

POLK – On August 3, 1946 James Polk delivered a veto message to Congress for “An Act making appropriations for the improvement of certain harbors and rivers.”  The bill appropriated $1,378,450 to more than 40 objects of improvement.  Because of the “local character” of these projects, Polk said, “it is difficult to conceive … what practical constitutional restraint can hereafter be imposed … The Constitution has not, in my judgment, conferred upon the federal government the power to construct works of internal improvements … The approved course of the government, and the deliberately expressed judgment of the people, have denied the existence of such a power under the Constitution.  Several of my predecessors have denied its existence in the most solemn forms … The general proposition that the federal government does not possess this power is well settled.”[10]  Polk also advances a test for constitutionality originally laid down by Madison, “Whenever a question arises concerning a particular power, the first question is whether the power be expressed in the Constitution.  If it be, the question is decided.  If it be not expressed, the next inquiry must be, whether it is properly an incident to an expressed power, and necessary to its execution.  If it be, it may be exercised by Congress.  If it be not, Congress cannot exercise it.”

Polk issued a second veto of a transportation bill on December 15, 1847 of “An Act to provide for continuing certain works in the Territory of Wisconsin, and for other purposes.”  Polk’s first objection was the bill’s misleading title.  It passed on the last day of a session and appropriated $6,000 for “continuing” work, while $500,000 was appropriated for numerous new projects.  The veto message opens by referring Congress to his prior veto message of August 3, 1946 and referenced to comments found in the veto messages of Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.  Polk also quotes Jefferson’s 1806 message to Congress recommending “an amendment to the Constitution.”  Restating the obvious Polk writes, “No express grant of this power is found in the Constitution.”[11]

PIERCE – Franklin Pierce issued seven transportation vetoes, more than any other President.  “An Act making appropriations for the repair, preservation, and completion of certain public works theretofore commenced under the authority of law” was vetoed as “unconstitutional” on August 4, 1854.  This bill is “not, in my judgment, warranted by any safe or true construction of the Constitution.”[12]

His first veto message was brief because the bill reached him in the “expiring hours” of a session, but Pierce elaborates at length in his December 30, 1854 (read on January 2, 1855) message to Congress.  He recites the 10th Amendment to the Constitution as further evidence to clarify the intended specificity of the enumerated powers listed in Article 1, Section 8.  He reasoned, “If the framers of the Constitution, wise and thoughtful men as they were, intended to confer on Congress the power over a subject so wide as the whole field of internal improvements, it is remarkable that they did not use language clearly to express it.”  In response to the assertion that language in the Constitution’s Preamble inferred a power vested Congress with authority over internal improvements, he wrote, “To assume that anything more can be designed by the language of the Preamble would be to convert all the body of the Constitution.”

On March 3, 1855, Pierce vetoed “An Act making appropriations for transportation of the United States mail by ocean steamer and otherwise, during fiscal years ending the 30th of June 1855 and the 30th of June 1856.”  In addition to citing that the appropriation was both a bad spending priority and a poor policy, Pierce stated that the bill was “of doubtful compatibility with the Constitution.”[13]

Congress persisted by passing “An Act to remove obstructions to navigation in the mouth of the Mississippi River at the Southwest pass and Pass a l’Outre.” It was vetoed on May 19, 1856, with “my views were exhibited in full on the subject … the Constitution does not confer on the general government any express powers to make such appropriations.”[14]

“An Act making an appropriation for deepening the channel over the St. Clair flats, in the State of Michigan” was vetoed on May 19, 1856 as violating the Constitutional “restriction on the power of Congress.”[15]

“An Act making an appropriation for deepening the channel over the flats of the St. Mary’s River, in the State of Michigan” was vetoed on May 22, 1856, as “not a necessary means for execution of any of the expressly granted powers of the federal government.”[16]

“An Act for continuing the improvement of the Des Moines rapids, in the Mississippi River” was vetoed on August 11, 1856.  For elaboration Congress was referred to his prior veto messages.[17]

“An Act for the improvement of the navigation of the Patapsco River, and to render the port of Baltimore accessible to the war steamers of the United States” was vetoed on August 14, 1856.  Pierce again referred Congress to his prior veto messages.[18]

BUCHANAN – President James Buchanan vetoed “An Act making an appropriation for deepening the channel over the St. Clair flats, in the State of Michigan” on February 1, 1860, as “a violation of the spirit of the Constitution.”  Buchanan declined to provide a protracted reply, “The question of the Constitutional power of Congress to construct internal improvements within the States has been so frequently and so elaborately discussed that it would seem useless on this occasion to repeat or to refute at length arguments which have been so often advanced.”  Suffice it to say, he agreed with his predecessors.  He specifically refers Congress to the Polk veto of December 15, 1847 and offers, “The corrupting and seducing money influence exerted by the general government in carrying into effect a system of internal improvements might be perverted to increase and consolidate its own power to the detriment of the rights of the States.”[19]

ARTHUR – Chester A. Arthur was the last President to unambiguously express his Constitutional views in a veto message.  On August 1, 1882 he vetoed, “An Act making appropriations for the construction, repair, and preservation of certain works on rivers and harbors, and for other purposes.”  “I regard such appropriations of the public money as beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.  I feel the more bound to withhold my signature from the bill because of the peculiar evils which manifestly result from this infraction of the Constitution.”[20]

PRESIDENTIAL VETO SUMMARY – This research of transportation vetoes finds that eight president vetoed 19 transportation bills as unconstitutional violations of enumerated powers.  Jefferson provided the same language in his December 2, 1806 message leaving no doubt of his views on this question (Jefferson issued no vetoes during his presidency).  Links to Senate and House Journals where the exact and complete language of the respective messages may be reviewed are provided in Appendix A.


The most significant power of a President is the power to veto legislation.  Thus, a veto represents the most solemn and sacred act exercised by a President.  A veto may be advanced for any reason or no reason at all.  Most are due to disagreement over scope, methods, nature or priorities of legislation; or philosophical differences.

All Presidents wisely strive to sustain a positive and constructive working relationship with the legislative branch.  Clearly, all of the nine veto-Presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, and Arthur) had the option to not use confrontational language by issuing their vetoes on other-than-constitutional grounds.  But they did not, inferring both a powerful strength of conviction and an enormous sense of obligation to express their Constitutional understandings.  That many also exercised these vetoes contrary to their own preference for policy, strengthens the message in their words.

Each of the above vetoes in effect accused members of Congress of ignoring their oaths of office to uphold the Constitution, of failing to comprehend the Constitution’s meaning and intent, or of being unwilling to abide by clearly enumerated Constitutional limitations.  Such accusations are neither trivial nor conducive to a positive working relationship.  Their principled stances provided no rewards.

GENERAL OR LOCAL BENEFIT – The views of the nine veto-Presidents above as represented by unmistakable language directed at Congress are unequivocal.  The specific views of other Presidents are less clearly decipherable from their veto message language.

The Jackson Maysville veto advanced Monroe language that evolved into criterion that appears in several subsequent vetoes in some form, “general welfare” of “purely local character” and eventually became the slippery slope that yielded current Federal involvement.  Did the vetoes of the subsequent Presidents seek to be more subtle and less offensive with their rhetoric toward Congress?  Did these words mean to say with less insult to the integrity of Congress, “unconstitutional under enumerated powers?”

This research does not attempt to comprehensively inventory all vetoes with this ambiguous language.  The cited veto messages sometimes included words like, “for the benefit of particular localities”, “of local interest”, or “lacking a general benefit.”  A partial list of such vetoes follows:

  • Benjamin Harrison, April 29, 1890 “a matter of local interest”
  • Benjamin Harrison, June 4 1890 “the public needs do not suggest or justify such an expenditure”
  • Grover Cleveland, May 23, 1888 “(not) necessary for the transaction of public business”
  • Grover Cleveland, May 29, 1896 “for the benefit of limited localities”
  • Grover Cleveland, July 7, 1896 “I (am not) satisfied that the legislation proposed is demanded by any exigency of the public welfare”
  • Theodore Roosevelt, March 3, 1903, “for local improvement”
  • Woodrow Wilson, July 11, 1918 “not in the public interest”
  • Herbert Hoover, July 11, 1932 “Fraught as it is with possibilities of misfeasance and special privileges”
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, June 11, 1940 “the public interests are not such”
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, August 2, 1941 “benefits of such expenditures are dependent upon local enforcement”


A Calvin Coolidge veto on May 18, 1928 comes close but does not quite state “local interest” as his reason, “Having in mind the increasing ability of the States to finance road construction due to the general adoption of the gasoline tax and the increase in revenue from this source which would accrue to States from roads.”  The State gasoline tax was a comparatively new innovation.  A Federal gasoline tax was, as yet, nonexistent.  Coolidge was, in effect, arguing against a Federal program of taxation and redistribution, the net effect of which would have advanced Federal involvement in State transportation decisions.


SEPARATION OF POWERS – As adherence to the Constitution slipped further from public perception, Congress acted to enlarge its power by including in legislation that Department Secretaries report directly to Congressional Committees.  Presidents objected to this infringement in another series of vetoes.  These are on Constitutional grounds, but because the limitations of Article 1, Section 8 seem to have been largely forgotten, the basis is encroachment on Executive Powers by the Legislative Branch.  These illustrate Congress’ insatiable thirst for more power.

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, July 16, 1956 “violate the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of powers”
  • Lyndon B. Johnson, June 4, 1965 “undesirable and improper encroachment by the Congress and its committees into the area of executive responsibilities”
  • Lyndon B. Johnson, August 21, 1965 “repugnant to the Constitution (by) encroachment (on) the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches”
  • Richard Nixon, April 5, 1973 “conflicts with the allocation of executive power to the President”
  • Jimmy Carter, July 10, 1978 “directs Secretaries to report to congressional committees”


INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM – On June 29, 1956 President Eisenhower signed into law the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”  Title II, the Highway Revenue Act, was its financial component that raised the Federal gasoline tax from 1 cent (implemented in 1932) to 2 cents (raised to 3 cents in 1958 and to 4 cents in 1959) per gallon and was scheduled to expire on June 30, 1972.  The 40,000 miles of new highways would be State owned and operated.  The Federal role was fiscal, to collect and redistribute revenues to expedite construction by States.  Conformity of construction among the States was an important goal of the legislation.  The Clay Committee estimated the total cost at $27 billion.  The bill authorized $25 billion.  By 1958 the system had increased to 41,000 miles at a total estimated cost of $41 billion.  In 1966 the Bureau of Public Roads became the U.S. Department of Transportation.  The Interstate System was completed in 1982.  In 1976 the Federal gasoline tax was extended and in 1990 increased from 9 cents to 14 cents.  Currently the Federal gasoline tax, at 18.4 cents, generates about $40 billion per year.

GROWTH OF PORK – In “Breach of Trust” former U.S. Representative Thomas Coburn of Oklahoma defines pork as “one member of Congress determines where the money is to be spent.”  Congress uses the friendlier label: “earmark.”  By this definition Federal Transportation Legislation contained only ten pork projects in 1982 at a cost of $386 million.  The 1987 bill contained 150 pork projects for $1,300 million, motivating a Reagan veto.   By 1991 the number of projects had grown to 539, at $6,200 million and the 1998 bill contained “a record shattering 1,467 pork projects for $9,500 million.”  “Shuster consistently argued that setting aside 5 percent … was a very reasonable thing to do.”  The debate had moved quite considerably afar from the points so eloquently articulated by Madison, and others.

Coburn elaborates on how these projects are generated by vote-buying.  Maverick Congresspersons who say, “My vote is not for sale” are punished.  The going rate of $15 million for a vote for the 1998 bill was corroborated by several Congresspersons.  House Transportation Chairman, Shuster, lividly denied the accusations as “McCarthyism.”  But Budget Committee Chairman, Kasich, called the bill an “abomination,” introducing a short-lived amendment to the bill that would reduce the federal gasoline tax to 4 cents per gallon.

TRUST FUND HISTORY – The Reason Public Policy Institute Policy Study 216[21] by Bob Poole in 1996 reviewed the history of the Federal Highway User Trust Fund, seeking to account for all costs in order to reveal a more accurate listing of donor versus recipient states aggregated over the life of the Fund.  Conventional wisdom is that 21 states are donor states.

RPPI reasonably underestimated the costs of Federal administration, mandates, delays and distortion of priorities.  This exercise revealed that the number of donor states is 33, 12 more than are generally considered donor states.  Because RPPI conservatively estimated and because other costs exist that were not included in the analysis such as the significant resources state and local governments use lobbying to recover “free money,” 33 donor states is an understatement.  In a yet-to-be-released CATO study, author Gabriel Roth, estimates that at least 42 states are donor states.  Thus, few states receive more money than they pay into the Trust Fund and the vast majority of states are injured by the continued movement of funds through the D.C. money-filter.  The value of money is not enhanced when it goes thru D.C.  A listing of the donor and recipient states based on RPPI’s 1996 research, along with their current representation in Congress is provided in Appendix B.

CONCLUSION – Notwithstanding, the Constitutional foundation, the historical evolution and the political promises, the trend toward higher levels of Federal waste, inefficiency and corruption should disturb all who care about good government.  This is exactly what the Polk veto of 1860 predicted, “The corrupting and seducing money influence exerted by the general government in carrying into effect a system of internal improvements might be perverted to increase and consolidate its own power to the detriment of the rights of the States.”

  • The Federal gasoline tax was created as a temporary tax to construct the Interstate Highway System.
  • The Federal gasoline tax has achieved it mission.
  • The Interstate Highway System was completed in 1982.
  • Since 1982 the number of “pork” projects has grown exponentially.
  • Continuation of the Federal gasoline tax is injuring transportation in at least 33 states.
  • The states injured by continuation of the Federal gasoline tax represent 88% of the U.S. House membership.
  • The Founders and several successor presidents stated that the U.S. Constitution does not delegate to the Federal government the authority to be involved in transportation improvements.
  • The Constitution has not been amended to allow Federal involvement in transportation.
  • All of the indirect claims of authority by Congress have been answered by the various presidential vetoes of proposed transportation legislation.
  • The warnings that ignoring the limits imposed by the Constitution would open the door to unbounded authority and centralization by Congress have come true.
  • The warning that money would become “corrupting and seducing” has come true.
  • The warning that ignoring the limits imposed by the Constitution would subjugate the states to Congress has come true.

State Departments of Transportation are sufficiently prepared to handle the added responsibility of prioritizing and managing their own transportation systems.  Devolving to the states responsibility for transportation is not only the right thing to do, but will result in improved fiscal efficiency and accountability.  After all, this is how the problem of the Cumberland Road was reconciled in 1835.  The era of massive transportation construction has ended.  The future challenge is to operate and maintain the world’s foremost transportation system with efficiency.  This cannot be achieved well with continuing top-down mandates.  Rather, devolution and liberalization of Federal restrictions will free those with the most innovative and creative leadership solutions to act.  There is a time to lead and a time to follow.  Less Federal involvement in transportation will facilitate more leadership in some, if not all 50, states, which will help America to be more competitive in this time of global competition for markets and jobs.  We owe it to the future to devolve transportation responsibilities to the states where they rightfully belong.












Reference Location

Link to Reference Location



Dec. 2 1806

Senate Journal


H.R. 29

March 3, 1817

House Journal


H.R 50

May 4, 1822

House Journal


May 4, 1822

Veto Supplement Not in Congressional




S. 27

May 31, 1830

Senate Journal


H.R. 285

May 27, 1830

House Journal



Dec. 7, 1830

House Journal


S. 97

Dec. 2, 1834

Senate Journal


H.R. 203

June 11, 1844

House Journal



Jan. 28, 1845


No veto message.  Tyler’s previous veto on constitutional grounds infers that this bill might have been vetoed on similar grounds.



Aug. 3, 1846

House Journal



Dec. 15, 1847

House Journal


H.R. 392

Aug. 4, 1854

House Journal


H.R. 595

Mar. 3, 1855

House Journal


S. 1

May 19, 1856

Senate Journal


S. 2

May 22, 1856

Senate Journal


S. 14

May 19, 1856

Senate Journal


S. 53

Aug. 14, 1856

Senate Journal


H.R. 12

Aug. 11, 1856

House Journal


S. 321

Feb. 2, 1860

Senate Journal


H.R. 6242

Aug. 1, 1882

13 Cong. Reg. 6758




















Congressional Votes



Alabama Donor



Alaska Recipient



Arizona Donor



Arkansas Donor



California Donor



Colorado Donor



Connecticut Recipient



Delaware Recipient



Florida Donor



Georgia Donor



Hawaii Recipient



Idaho Recipient



Illinois Donor



Indiana Donor



Iowa Donor



Kansas Donor



Kentucky Donor



Louisiana Donor



Maine Donor



Maryland Recipient



Massachusetts Recipient



Michigan Donor



Minnesota Donor



Mississippi Donor



Missouri Donor



Montana Recipient



Nebraska Donor



Nevada Recipient



New Hampshire Donor



New Jersey Donor



New Mexico Donor



New York Donor



North Carolina Donor



North Dakota Recipient



Ohio Donor



Oklahoma Donor



Oregon Donor



Pennsylvania Donor



Rhode Island Recipient



South Carolina Donor



South Dakota Recipient



Tennessee Donor



Texas Donor



Utah Recipient



Vermont Recipient



Virginia Donor



Washington Recipient



West Virginia Recipient



Wisconsin Donor



Wyoming Recipient






17 Recipient States



33 Donor States



[1] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[2] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[3] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[4] See Appendix A for a link.[5] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[6] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[7] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[8] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[9] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[10] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.[11] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[12] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[13] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[14] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[15] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[16] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[17] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[18] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[19] See Appendix A for a link to the Congressional Record.

[20] See Appendix A for a link.



Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill
What is wrong with this picture?

Traffic congestion is the worst ever and is worsening. Congestion imposes costs that exceed the cost to eliminate it. Half of the gas tax goes to the Federal government, which neither owns nor operates any highways, railroads, airports or transit facilities. Congress increasingly uses transportation revenues for non-transportation purposes and imposes rules that make it difficult for states to solve problems.

One could conclude that Congress wishes to damage both the mobility and economic well-being of America. Instead, Congress’ motivation is merely a quenchless thirst for more power, control, and self-gratification.

It is said “spending to politicians is like drugs to addicts.” There may be no better proof than Federal Transportation legislation. Even though there is no longer a national transportation policy, taxpayers spend $40 billion per year to fund it.

The Federal government was slow to involve itself in transportation, because the U.S. Constitution clearly identified “internal improvements” as outside Federal domain enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. At least nine presidents issued no less than 20 vetoes of transportation legislation as “unconstitutional.” The importance of mobility to the outcome of World War II provided the rationale for ignoring the Constitutional limitation.

The Federal gas tax, implemented in 1956, would finance construction of the 40,000 mile “National Defense Highway System.” Scheduled to expire in 1972, the tax was repeatedly extended and increased. The prohibition against Congress designating specific projects in transportation bills ended in 1982, coincidently (or not) the same year Interstate construction was finished. Reagan vetoed the bill because it contained 152 “earmarks.”

The current reauthorization was debated for over 2 years as Congress contemplated the amount of pork and the extent to inhibit state leadership in transportation. The prospect of a Bush veto was a beacon of hope for those wishful of enlightened or less damaging policy.

The veto threat ended talk of a tax increase and reduced spending to $286.4 billion. H.R.-3 passed both houses with veto-proof margins, increasing “earmarks” to 6,371. Freshman Oklahoma U.S. Senator, Tom Coburn, in his book “Breach of Trust” writes about his tenure as a U.S. Representative during the 1998 reauthorization, “Representative Largent accused the Transportation Committee of trying to buy his vote. Largent said the committee asked him where he wanted to spend $15 million in his district. A disgusted Largent said, ‘My vote is not for sale.'”

This practice continues and explains the bipartisan veto-proof majorities in both houses. It also explains the coincidence that four of Colorado’s seven U.S. House Districts are “earmarked” for $16 million each. Committee members and leadership receive more “earmarks.” This is why Alaska’s per capita “take” is over 10 times that of second place, Washington State. The 92 percent return of taxes to Colorado is an improvement. It means Colorado taxpayers lose only about $350 million.

The behavior of Congress has become so outrageous that scholars from both the left and the right now advocate that the Federal gas tax should be delegated to the states. In a recent lecture, Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution suggested, “It is time to seriously look at the possibility that we need to devolve all transportation funding out of Washington.”

Congress prefers more power, control and ego-gratification, not less. The reauthorization had included the creation of the Transportation Finance Corporation. Fortunately the Bush-veto threat helped to kill TFC. TFC would have used the gas tax to finance debt for more spending. As with the slippery slope of earmarks, the concept would have begun small at $30 billion. Taken to the extreme the $40 billion annual revenue might eventually add another trillion to the national debt, rapidly nearing $8 trillion. TFC spending would serve as an obstacle to devolving the tax to the states. To the extent that debt is wise, the decision is better-made by the respective states.

There is no example in history of a corrupt political institution reforming itself. At Runnymede, under threat of death King John reluctantly signed Magna Carta. Amazingly tolerant of Congressional abuses, citizens patiently await reform. Understandably fearful of being denied their states’ rightful funds, state legislators are cowed. Yet hope for leadership persists. In 2003 Colorado overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution (97-3) asking that the Federal gas tax be devolved. Arizona passed a similar resolution in 2004. How outrageous does Congressional behavior have to be before this corruption ends?

Abe Lincoln wisely commented, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill
The wealth Americans enjoy depends upon the efficient movement of goods and services.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, trip time halved. Suppliers suddenly had twice as many people to sell to. Consumers had twice as many purchasing options. Efficient transportation yielded benefits to both suppliers and consumers.

The same benefits accrue at the micro-level, proportionately smaller in scale. A new traffic signal that hastens traffic flow produces economic benefits. Similarly, one that hinders more than hastens, cause economic damage.

America’s transportation system is the envy of the world. Yet, managers have failed to keep pace with growth. The inevitable result, growing traffic congestion, imposes economic cost many times greater than the cost to eliminate it.

Users seem paradoxical in their willingness to pay for better service and in their simultaneous resistance to higher taxes. This apparent conflict frustrates political leaders who fail to recognize the consistency in the paradox. A coherent new policy has yet to crystallize.

Scholars from both the political left and right have been in agreement for at least two decades that transportation must move to market-based financing. Resistance to change is centered in the most powerful of special interest groups: the political class. Empowerment of markets or consumers means less power for politicians.

The Federal gas tax, scheduled to expire in 1972, was introduced in 1956 to finance construction of the Interstate Highway system. The Federal tax is currently at $0.184 per gallon. State taxes range from Georgia’s $0.075 to Wisconsin’s $0.321 with Colorado at $0.22.

This generates 40 billion Federal dollars annually and most of this money eventually finds its way back to the states in some form. There are no federally-owned highways, airports, railroads or transit systems. Colorado gets about 1.275%, but about 1/3 is diverted.

Since completion of interstate highway construction in 1982, Congress has turned the Federal gas tax into the nation’s most outrageous pork program. Reagan vetoed the 1982 transportation bill because it contained 10 earmarks. Historically, specific project designations in federal legislation were prohibited. There are currently 3,248 earmarks.

Colorado gasoline taxes fund the Highway User Trust Fund. HUTF revenues are shared between CDOT and nearly 400 Colorado local governments with roads. Three intractable trends are shrinking HUTF revenues: fuel economy, inflation, and diversion. Their combined effect may exceed 5% per year. This halves the HUTF every 15 years. The politician who advocates doubling taxes will have a short career. A different finance system is inevitable. The challenge is to conceive one that works better than the gas tax.

Gas tax user fees have two fatal flaws. Centralization of funds creates a target for special interest groups and political interests. More significantly, paying at the pump conveys the perception that system-use is free, causing a tragedy of the commons. That is, disproportionate numbers try to use the system at the same time, rush hour, resulting in system failure known as traffic congestion. This, in turn, motivates infrastructure to be unnecessarily enlarged. A close look at traffic count data reveals that the most congested roads are capable of moving twice as many vehicles.

Electronic toll collection has made tollbooths obsolete and facilitates variable tolls. ETC eliminates tollbooth accidents and reduces collection costs. Variable tolls vary with demand insuring that a lane is never congested. Never-congested lanes move more vehicles during peak periods than do congested lanes. Moving traffic consumes less fuel per mile traveled, reducing emissions. Excess revenue generation is a signal that more infrastructure may be needed and provides a funding source.

Prior to 1956 Eisenhower, who favored tolls and McDonald, his highway chief, who favored the gas tax, struggled to decide the future of transportation finance. The gas tax accelerated rapid development of a four million mile roadway network. A finance system that helps operate and maintain the existing system is now appropriate for the future.

Tolls are inevitable. Enlightened political leadership will work to educate the general public of the benefits by strategically located demonstration projects. As dependence on the gas tax decreases, those revenues can be reassigned to local governments to help address their funding shortfalls.

Dennis Polhill is a former City Public Works Manager, a Consulting Transportation Engineer and a Senior Fellow with the 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.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, Tiffany Dovey

Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of traveling on I-25, or rather, of
sitting in the parking lot otherwise known as Interstate-25, knows that as
you head from downtown to the Tech Center things go from bad to worse.
T-REX will add capacity. But, will the improvements increase mobility?

Before T-REX, three traffic lanes in each direction served I-25 through
the Tech Center. T-REX improvements add one traffic lane and light rail in
each direction for $1.7 billion. The November 1999 election authorized
rail on the condition that at least 60% of the cost be borne by the
Federal government. The highway portion is financed by debt called
Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes (TRANS). By exhausting future
revenues for immediate projects, Colorado’s ability to address future
transportation needs has been hampered.

Will Tyrannosaurus Rex, the dinosaur predator, gobble up gridlock or feast
on taxpayers?

Colorado’s Highway Users Tax Fund gets 22 cents per gallon of gasoline to
finance the state’s 85,412 roadway miles. Another 18.4 cents goes to the
Federal government to finance Interstate highway construction. Since
completion of construction over a decade ago, Congress has used the funds
for items increasingly unrelated to the stated purpose. The remainder,
about 62%, eventually finds its way back to Colorado, but with strings.
Penalties are assigned for failure to adhere to Federal mandates, like the
$50,000,000 against Colorado for not lowering DUI blood alcohol limits to
0.08 percent.

Fuel economy and diversion of funds to projects that do not significantly
enhance mobility increasingly erode the ability of the gasoline tax to
finance transportation. HUTF strength will probably diminish by one-half
to three-quarters over the next 20 years. Politicians who advocate
comparable increases will quickly be out of office. What to do?

Is there an alternative to tax increases? Gas tax dependence should be
phased out and replaced with a better, more market-oriented user fee:
tolls. Because construction of the interstate system is finished, enormous
resource transfers between states is unneeded. The Federal gas tax can be
quickly and significantly reduced or reassigned to the states.

Rush hour traffic jams prove that the system has more value at some times
and flat rate tolls are inadequate. Variable rate tolls are effective at
allocating the scarce resource of available capacity. Before T-REX,
traffic counts show that 43% of the capacity was unused. The most
congested road in Colorado could have served nearly twice as many
vehicles. Adding one lane to three lanes increases capacity by 33%.
Because most light rail users are former bus riders, light rail does not
significantly help congestion. Given that I-25 traffic increases 2.6
percent per annum, growth will consume most of the new capacity before
T-REX opens.

How can variable tolls help? By making the new lane a restricted lane it
can be shared by high occupancy vehicles (HOV), bus rapid transit (BRT)
and others willing to pay a toll (thus, the term “high occupancy toll” or
HOT lane). As demand on the system changes, a variable toll rate is
displayed on a message board, allowing drivers to weigh the urgency of
their travel against the current toll. Varying the toll with demand,
insures that the road never becomes congested.

Tolls are a better user-fee than the gas tax because individuals
experience the cost for service at the time benefits are delivered. Under
the collectivist gasoline tax users who consume more of the system gain
disproportionate benefits at the expense of others. This phenomenon, known
as the “tragedy of the commons,” is avoided with variable tolls.

“Let Those Who Receive the Benefits Pay the Costs,” Independence Institute
Issue Paper 13-99 by Stephen R. Mueller and Dennis Polhill exhaustively
evaluated 22 possible configurations for I-25. The scenario being
constructed in T-REX would generate about $600 million after operating
expenses, if the new lane were a HOT lane.

By using the power of the market, congestion-free, free-flow travel is
also available to both carpoolers and single occupant drivers.

So, what are the options? Colorado can either proceed accepting that the
corridor will soon return to gridlock, or the new lane can be changed to a
restricted lane before it is opened. The restricted lane insures that
corridor users benefit because they will forever have a free-flow travel
option; Colorado gains a windfall of millions of dollars; and the corridor
benefits by moving more people more efficiently. Only in the political
world could this decision be tough.

Is the political control of transportation more important than allowing
users choice and providing higher service at lower cost?

Copyright 2003 The 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 at the Independence Institute. Tiffany
Dovey is a graduate of the University of Washington and a summer intern at
the Independence Institute. This opinion editorial is a summary of a more
extensive discussion in Issue Backgrounder, soon to be posted on our

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.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

As the possibility of a strike grew nearer, stronger threats against the Regional Transportation District union were made: contracts with private companies might weaken discipline, or break the unruly union. RTD union members missed an opportunity to declare independence. The RTD Board lost an opportunity to increase service and lower cost.

As demand for transit declined after WW II, privately owned trolleys became privately owned buses, and later turned into publicly owned buses. Enjoying the coercive power of government taxation and regulation, publicly owned bus systems passed laws prohibiting competition. Hundreds of sole proprietor suppliers, many racial minority entrepreneurs, were forced out of business to benefit government monopoly. This happened in Denver along with every other major city in the United States during the 1960s.

In spite of the controls, demand for transit continued to decline, requiring that the initially small tax subsidies regularly increase to the point that the average bus-user now pays less than one fourth of the cost of a trip. The nature of the service is that some smart guys in big offices decide where and when the buses will run and where and when they will stop for passengers. Users merely need to shape their lives to fit the schedule. To sustain non-competition, when a route is canceled, customers on these routes are prohibited from having service from any other provider. This Soviet-style command-and-control approach elevates costs and minimizes service.

In 1989, the Florida State legislature inadvertently decriminalized transit competition. Within months independent providers proliferated. To end the evil trend, corrective legislation was quickly passed and the criminals (again mostly racial minorities) were restrained and their vehicles impounded.

These service providers are called “jitneys.” Jitney is the same name used for providers prior to government monopoly. Jitney vehicles can be any size, but generally they are vans that run on semi-fixed routes and semi-fixed schedules. Consumers simply wave an arm to get a lift or to get off.

A 1992 Federal Transit Administration study captured some interesting facts. In Miami an estimated 400 jitney vehicles carried an average of 46,000 passenger-trips per day, approximately 25% of Metrobus ridership. Jitney fares were comparable to Metrobus fares at one dollar, but obviously enjoyed no tax subsidy. Thus, the one-dollar jitney fare covered all jitney costs.

About half of jitney-riders were former bus riders, amounting to about 12% loss in fare box revenue to Metrobus. But the other half were not former bus riders, meaning that close to 20,000 fewer automobiles were on the roads, decreasing traffic congestion and trip times, increasing mobility and decreasing auto-related air pollution.

Jitneys interfere less with normal traffic flow and do not cause excessive damage to pavement structures, as opposed to lumbering oversized, mostly-empty buses. For customers, route and schedule flexibility result in faster service, shorter waits, faster trips and delivery closer to destinations. Centrally controlled fixed-route, fixed-schedule transit can never match jitney service.

During the 1982 strike, carpooling caused traffic counts to go down slightly. Mobility is best measured by speeds. Fewer total vehicles and no buses interfering with traffic flow yielded a noticeable improvement in mobility.

A decentralized problem cannot be solved with a strategy of centralization. Both traffic congestion and mobility are decentralized problems.

A strike would have empowered both RTD and its union to depart from the norm. The union could have demanded a contract with more freedom for its drivers to suggest routes and/or stops, as well as the opportunity for small groups to separate from RTD to service specified routes as independent operators.

Odds are good that 2000 drivers have more knowledge of consumer needs than the smart guys in big offices. If so, then the consumer-friendliness of jitney services would be further enhanced.

By using jitneys temporarily during a strike, RTD would have had the opportunity to elevate service without increasing costs, simply by temporarily lifting the regulatory prohibition. As has happened in the past, leadership might also have come from the General Assembly as a directive to experiment with jitneys.

Lacking the opportunities offered by a strike, perhaps RTD and its union can cooperate to test the workability of a Miami-style system. In a willing community, RTD drivers should be free to provide independent service to that community. Obviously, RTD would waive regulatory prohibitions in that community. If jitneys work well in one area, other areas can be tried. With jitneys RTDs biggest problem might be figuring out how to consume $500 million every year.

Copyright 2003
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 at the 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.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

The cost of traffic congestion exceeds the cost to eliminate it.

An ongoing project of the Texas Transportation Institute estimates traffic congestion annually. TTI calculated the cost to the U.S. economy at $68 billion in 2000. Because the cost is growing faster than the population, congestion is making Americans worse off. This is more than enough money to add an additional lane to every interstate highway in the United States in each direction. Less extreme proposals could instantly eliminate all traffic congestion. The reason traffic congestion exists is political.

Americans are patient and tolerant. We trust elected officials to be honest, conscientious and diligent; generally, they are. The time grows closer when tolerance for traffic congestion will cease. Perhaps the many failed tax measures in the November 2002 election are a sign of how thin patience is growing. To fix traffic congestion, systemic and political problems must be attacked at their roots.

First, transportation finance is collectivized. Taxes are put into a big pot so smart guys can do the right project in the right place at the right time. The theory sounds good, but the Soviet model has failed miserably in every trial. Expecting a different result is a triumph of hope over experience. Wise public policy recognizes this failing and seeks to decentralize by employing market-driven incentives.

Second, because the bosses of the smart guys are politicians, transportation inevitably becomes politicized. Colorado politicians have determined that nearly 60% of Denver-metro transportation funding over the next 20 years will go to transit. This outlay is expected to increase transit’s market share from 1.53% to 2.23% of total trips. This policy means that traffic congestion and mobility will become much worse. The politicization of transportation leads to the misapplication of limited resources.

Third, the Transportation Industrial Complex, the contractors, consultants, suppliers and bureaucrats, whose unchallenged survival hinges on sustaining the status quo, resists change. Combined with the demagoguery of special interest groups and government agencies, not bound by service or truth, this Complex Plus makes up a formidable political force.

Fourth, some interests intend harm. Injury to consumers, taxation, mobility, environment and economy are “collateral damage” to their mission. Ray Barnhart, former head of the Federal Highway Administration, reflected recently on his 1991 recommendation to President Bush to veto Federal transportation legislation, “if ISTEA becomes law politics, not engineering principles will determine. Congress has given official standing (to groups) not interested in transportation per se, but rather in gaining control of transportation programs in order to require a social agenda.”

There is hope! Reform comes as a byproduct of catastrophe. “A transportation crisis is brewing. Commerce will snarl, costing billions,” said the November 27, 2002 Kiplinger Letter. By 2009 there will be a “12% slower average road speed and about a 10% increase in the average delay.”

Tax subsidies to institutions yield bigger, more bureaucratic, less accountable, and less efficient institutions. Conversely, subsidies to individuals, when appropriate, empower consumers, and create accountability, choice, market growth, competition, lower prices, and innovation. Proof is in the success of the food stamp and G.I. Bill programs.

When groups such as the Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the Democratic Leadership Council of the Democratic Party, begin to suggest that, “Our nation’s surface transportation system is broken” and fixes must “harness market forces,” then a convergence of thought has begun. If the contemplative elements of both the left and right concur, but the politicians continue to refuse to lead, then is this because solution might diminish their importance?

Certainly, when projects like converting the I-25 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to High Occupancy Toll lanes (mandated in 1999 by Andrews’ Senate Bill 88) would do no injury, while relieving some traffic congestion and raising revenue, are stalled for years by governments, their true agenda is revealed. Is the stalling-benefit that RTD and the Federal Transit Administration perceive, that a cheap and functional method of solving traffic congestion without tax increases might jeopardize their goal of more taxes and bigger bureaucracies?

Government monopoly of transportation is failing. The sooner this failure is recognized, the sooner leaders can implement innovative systems to increase mobility, job growth, and commercial viability. Those who seek to diminish mobility, strive for the impossible and the undesirable.

The “transportation choice” movement has started. As the term “transportation choice” becomes part of the lexicon, intelligent debate over how to implement and balance the wide variety of alternative possibilities will commence. Let the debate over “transportation choice” begin.

Copyright 2003
The 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 at 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.

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.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, Scott Barton

Traffic congestion is getting worse and transit is not helping.

Analysis of 2000 Census data by Randall OToole of the Thoreau Institute ( reveals that Americans are turning away from transit and increasingly using automobiles to satisfy their mobility needs.  Between 1990 and 2000, passenger-miles traveled by car increased 30% nationwide, while transit increased only 16.1%.  This means that the $70 billion spent on new transit systems did nothing to help traffic congestion.

In Denver, highway use increased 39 times more than transit use.  If the current plan to divert nearly 60% of transportation funding to transit over the next 20 years is not reconsidered, mobility in Colorado will suffer greatly.

Nationwide, transit continues to carry a small portion of all trips.  On average, transit carries 2% of all urban travel.  In Denver, transit commands 1.4% of the market, and only 4.3% of all commuters.

Transits greatest benefits are for commuters, but auto use by commuters has outpaced transit.  Nationally, the number of commuters riding transit to work declined.  However, the number of American jobs has grown by 13 million, an increase of 11%.  These new commuters are not using transit to get to work, which means transit isnt relieving rush-hour congestion.  Flextime and telecommuting that cost taxpayers nothing yield more traffic congestion relief than the massive expenditures for transit.

Despite low performance, transit is well funded.  In the last nine years, transit agencies nationwide have spent $70 billion dollars on capital projects and $186 billion for operating expenses, but collected only $72 billion in fares.  Thus, transit seems doomed to never ending dependence on heavy taxpayer subsidies.

Transit advocates point to the amount of non-user based fees spent for auto travel, as logic that others should pay their travel.  In 2000, roads and transit received subsidies of $22.4 billion and $23.5 billion respectively.  But passenger-miles traveled on transit are about one percent as much as by auto.  Therefore, subsidies per passenger-mile are one hundred times greater for transit than for auto users!

Moreover, transit worker productivity has declined as much as 19% since 1990.  This decrease in output is primarily the result of diminishing transit use.  As transit agencies gain more funding, taxpayers and users get less for their dollars.

Despite the apparent failure of transit in general, one type shines through as a clear loser: light rail.  In 2000, light rail used 10.9% of capital funding, but carried only 2.8 % of transit riders.  Thats 2.8% of transits 2.5%, or 0.07% of all trips.

Over the last decade, the trend is even more apparent.  Since 1992, transit agencies have spent twice as much on rail as buses, yet buses continue to carry the vast majority of transit trips.  Even though transit agencies throw money at light rail, it remains an inconsequential part of transit service.

Rail also under-performs at the fare box.  The average bus fare is 77 cents, but the average light rail fare is 57 cents.  Does this mean that light rail fares must be lower to attract users or that agencies have exaggerated ridership?  In either case, light rail’s low fares and high expenses result in the need for greater subsidies.  Light rail requires 2.5 times as much subsidy as buses per user and 250 times as much as autos.

Light rail fails because it cannot be targeted to a particular type of urban area.  In high-density cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston, heavy-rail and commuter-rail systems work more efficiently than light rail, and buses work better everywhere else.

With the release of Census data, there isnt much for transit advocates to celebrate.  Transit continues to occupy an extremely small role and even where transit has grown, its numbers are dwarfed by the growth in highway use.  Transit is grossly over funded and hugely subsidized, even as worker productivity declines.

Over the last 2 decades virtually every aspect of American society has been pressed to provide more service at less cost.  The 2000 Census reveals that transit is isolated from this trend.  Transit agencies spend disproportionate and shocking amounts of money on obsolete technologies like light rail, without realizing that the current central-control approach is incapable of significantly helping to solve transportation problems.

The sooner policy makers come to grips with the difficult and unfortunate reality of failing transit, the sooner policies that improve mobility and reduce costs can be embraced.


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 at the Institute.

SCOTT BARTON is a summer intern at the 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.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Ozone is a known cancer-causing agent. It also causes lung irritation and difficulty in breathing, especially among the very young, elderly, and those with respiratory ailments. Ozone is an unstable form or oxygen. Light rail trains generate ozone. Is there a problem?

In the atmosphere oxygen usually travels in pares of two oxygen atoms together. Chemists refer to oxygen in this form as 02. We need this type of oxygen to breathe and survive.

But sometimes nature gets confused and oxygen appears with three oxygen atoms together. This is ozone: 03; and it can kill people.

Ozone is best known for its environmentally beneficial characteristics. In the upper atmosphere it absorbs cosmic radiation, protecting humans on earth from the effects of the sun. Without the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere skin cancer rates would increase.

In the lower atmosphere ozone is a problem. Denver became a US EPA “non-attainment area” in 1978 when the ozone limit of 0.12 was exceeded. The Denver area has not exceeded the limit since 1988, and was re-designated as “attainment” on October 11, 2001. Colorado would again come under the punitive “non-attainment” rules if weather patters join with man-generated ozone to exceed the air quality limit.

Experts are generally unaware of the sources and behavior of lower atmosphere ozone. They just know that they dont want it around. Large amounts of ozone are generated by electrical storms, but it seems to dissipate quickly. Ozone is also one of the byproducts of automobile operation. Nitrous oxides combine with hydrocarbons, both auto emissions, in the presence of sunlight to yield ozone. Automobiles produce ozone indirectly when conditions are conducive. LRT produces ozone directly and constantly.

Ozone is produced in electric motors when arcing occurs. Arcing is a continuous process within these motors. Higher voltages and higher power demands yield more arcing and in turn, more ozone. Because LRT is powered by electric motors, some environmental assessment of potential affects is warranted. This question was raised in 1994 in Independence Institute issue paper: “Stop That Train” – by Mueller and Polhill.

Lets see how much has been learned in 8 years. Certainly a government concerned with the public well-being, as RTD is, can provide a factual reply. When contacted about this, RTDs Environmental Manager was unable to offer any information whatsoever or name anyone else at RTD or at any other agency with the knowledge to defuse the question.

No expert or other knowledgeable individuals or reports on outdoor ozone could be found at either the US EPA or the Federal Transit Administration. However, there was a study in Southern California of ozone generation by LRT in 1992. It was conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and concluded that one 350 person light rail train produced as much ozone as 8,000 passenger cars and added 0.04 parts per million per train per hour to the ambient air along the light rail corridor. Clearly these numbers understate the problem on the basis of people moved and demonstrate a non-trivial environmental cost of LRT. None of RTDs Environmental Impact Statements has made mention of ozone as a potential problem. The fact that nearly everyone, including those who should know the most, seems oblivious should raise a red flag.

Normalizing the numbers reveals that ozone generated by light rail is at least 50 to 100 times higher than ozone generation by automobiles per person moved.

Denvers “non-attainment” limit for ozone concentrations is 0.12 ppm. Exceeding this limit at any single location carries the threat of loss of Federal funding. EPA sets environmental limits by risk assessment. In theory the 0.12 ppm limit is the level at which one person per million will die. However, not all people are affected the same. One person might contract lung cancer at the .04 ppm level and another might not contract it at all, even when exposed to a much higher level.

Higher concentrations also have more dire health implications. The human body can tolerate a low level of ozone. But once the threshold is exceeded, then the deleterious effects are compounded and magnified. That is, the problems are not arithmetically proportional. If one person per million will die at 0.12 ppm, then at 0.24 ppm more than 2 people will die. It might be 10 or 100 people or more.

Thus, two or three trains per hour in one direction could cause an ozone violation or impose substantial long-term health problems upon some individuals exposed.

RTD apologists have adopted the ostrich philosophy: “Burying your head makes all problems disappear.” Until the ozone questions are answered and to protect the health and safety of innocent citizens, all development near LRT should be prohibited and existing property owners should be warned. Though there may not yet be enough information to warrant evacuation, it is logically inconsistent to conclude that no evaluation is needed.

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 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.

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%.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

The failed monorail proposal contained interesting aspects, one of them being the absurdity of its discussion as a viable proposal.  Voters wisely recognized the dubious and speculative nature of the exaggerated technological and economic claims.  Even if the monorail could have worked at any price, then how would this massive capital outlay ever do anything to address traffic congestion?  To succeed, the monorail would have to absorb all future as well as some of the pre-existing trip demand.  When expectations transcend the unlikely and range to the impossible, advocates engage in delusional fantasy.

The November 2001 election was friendly to most ballot measures across the nation.  Odd-year elections typically do not address many issues.  Nationwide there were four statewide initiatives and 29 referred measures in five states.  Thirty-one of the 33 passed.  The only other item to fail was a referred measure that would have allowed Washington state funds to be invested in the stock market.  It received eight percent more yes votes than did the monorail.  The Colorado monorail might arguably have been the 2001 elections stupidest idea in America.

Die-hard supporters hold firm in their view of monorails viability.  If its viable, they should not be deprived of the opportunity to profit by offering this service in the free market.  The fact that advocates opted for the awkward, slow, inefficient and maddening politics of a government-sponsored project suggests that they do not truly believe its viability.

Non-viable projects require the coercive force of government to extract support from unwilling taxpayers.  Therefore, all capital-intensive proposals brought for a vote should be suspect.  The current orgy of collectivist coercion threatens the very foundation of self-government, free markets and freedom.  Well intended, but unenlightened, zealots seek to impose their view of a better life upon all.  Provided privately, the monorail would empower every individual to choose whether its benefits were worth the outlay.  This is how good decisions are made: at the grocery store; when going to dinner, plays or movies; in buying cars, houses or vacations.  Choice is the American way.

Yet there is no shortage of ideas unabashedly requiring coercive imposition: sports stadiums, convention centers, light rail, T-REX, and monorail.  The reasoning is always the same.  The huge cost is small if imposed on large numbers of people.  The first bite of the monorail apple would cost each person in Colorado only $19.  Its assumed that people will not perceive the next bite, which is to be 80 times bigger.  Instead of doing its critical tasks well, government is intruding into all forms of activities, subverting rather than augmenting markets.

James Buchanan earned the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics for the development of Public Choice Theory.  The theory asserts that the behavior of political actors is predictable on economic grounds.  That is, special interests succeed most when benefits are concentrated and costs are distributed widely. After being defunded by statewide vote of the people in 1993, the Colorado Tourism Board was refunded in 1999 by the state legislature.  Legislators are effectively powerless when confronted with enormous pro-spend testimony and minimal anti-spend testimony.  It is not economically rational for citizens to incur the time, expense and hassle to testify against special-interest legislation when their individual cost is small.

An Independence Institute Issue Paper by Dr. Barry Fagin, “Who Testifies and Why <> discovered that before the Colorado Senate Finance Committee chances are 96% that a witness is a beneficiary.  Another study finds that before the U.S. Congress, witnesses favor more spending 145 to 1 and senior legislators are more inclined to support special interests.

Because parasitic interest groups prefer a more favorable audience, the ballot is their instrument of last resort.  Indeed, monorail advocates were rejected by the legislature prior to their decision to go to the ballot.

Spending money frivolously is a right each individual enjoys.  There are as many ways to do it as there are personalities.  People work hard and save in order to maximize this right.  Its exercise relieves stress and enriches.  Intellect and individualism become more pronounced.  Outlays offer new business opportunities and elevate the wealth of other individuals.

But extended to the collective, frivolous expenditure is not a right.  It is collectivist tyranny.  To the minority being imposed upon, the fact that the frivolous spending decision was made by either 51 or 99 percent is cold comfort.  To preserve freedom and choice, Americans must learn that many government transportation proposals are boondoggles that consume more resources than they create.

Under the collectivist abuse model, each free person is impoverished ever so slightly each time a non-viable activity is funded.  It is the torturous death by one thousand cuts.  All Americans owe it to themselves and to their grandchildren to give deep and serious consideration to the implications of offering support to collectivist endeavors.


Copyright 2001, 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.

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.

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, Stephen R. Mueller

Everyone is complaining about traffic congestion. At the Independence Institute, we’ve said it time and time again: it’s not the growth, it’s the traffic that has everyone upset. The most important thing we can do to alleviate traffic congestion in the western metropolitan area is to complete the 470 Loop near Golden.

For many years, studies by the Denver Regional Council of Governments have shown the best solution for both air pollution and traffic congestion is a highway loop, or beltway, system which allows people to drive around the city instead of through it. This disperses cars, and therefore emissions, over a wider area and, perhaps as importantly, saves people time and money.

Neighborhoods in Golden, Westminster and Arvada would benefit if commuters travel through their communities more quickly and without car engines idling at stoplights, which is when cars pollute the most. Our priorities and the actions which would most improve the quality of life in the metro area should be removing bottlenecks and other capacity limitations, improving traffic signal coordination, and completing the 470 bypass loop.

Nearly every major city in America has a highway bypass loop, and Houston is currently working on its third. Cities that have grown large more recently have proven that highway bypass loops assist in preventing the kind of central city congestion that affects older cities that grew large before the concept of bypass loops was prevalent. Ideally, as

Houston is demonstrating, the original bypass loop should be located six miles from the city center and then each additional loop should be six miles in diameter from the original. E-470 is located about 13 miles from the center of Denver, forever dooming the downtown metro area to more than its fair share of traffic congestion.

We’re way behind schedule completing the bypass loop around Denver, and as increasing traffic congestion and air pollution shows, we’re getting further behind every day. The blame can be placed solidly on political correctness and the activities of environmental activists and light-rail transit advocates, such as COPIRG, which recently included the northwest segment of the 470 loop on its recently announced “Sprawl of Shame” list. They want to take money from highway funds; money paid by highway users to support the roadway system ; and redirect the dollars to light-rail and fixed-route bus systems that only serve 2% of the population.

Due to bad decisions made by politicians and planners who have determined that 60% of the future metro area transportation funds will be spent on public transit projects instead of roads, the problems associated with traffic congestion and air pollution will only get worse. It’s ironic that the planners themselves have projected that, after 20 years of devoting 60% of all transportation funds to transit, that bus and light rail ridership will increase from a whopping 1.53% to a staggering 2.23% of all trips made in the metro area.

Transit advocates, environmentalists and planners seem willing to accept transportation-related costs to society that scare the heck out of the rest of us. They concede, “Roadway speeds will decline. Severe congestion will increase significantly. Person hours of delay will double. Fuel efficiency will decrease.” All this while they’re furiously adding light rail and bus routes.

During the last decade, Colorado grew by almost one million people (and a relative number of cars), but the roadway network was not expanded at a sufficient rate to handle this large increase in people and cars. Because we have limited our supply of roads during a time of increasing demand to use them, traffic congestion has increased dramatically. The Texas Transportation Institute studies traffic congestion in major American cities each year, and their Road Congestion Index for Denver shows traffic density increased by 2.8% last year, dropping Denver to 48th in the ranking of 70 cities evaluated. Whenever the efficiency of public roads is compromised, the benefits arising from efficient transportation disappear from society. In 1960, the American Association of State Highway Officials reported that “savings in time”;has value in direct ratio to costs of operation. It has value also for fixed costs such as overhead; “because saving in time of travel results in greater usage for given time.” In short, efficient transportation augments economic efficiency and enhances the wealth and opportunity of all society’s members and, conversely, inefficient transportation imparts an economic cost that diminishes the personal wealth of all.

If driving time delays double, then UPS will need more trucks and workers to provide the same level of service, making it impossible to lower costs to consumers through efficiency. The same can be said for FedEx, the postal service, furniture movers, pizza delivery, meter reading, garbage pick-up, telephone repairs, etc. Not only will it cost more to get bread to the grocery store, it will also cost more to transport the flour to the bakery.

C-470 and E-470 don’t and won’t serve their true purpose until the Northwest Parkway is completed and a new link between the southwest metro area and C-470 in Golden is built. We’re all paying for the delay.

Dennis Polhill and Steve Mueller are Senior Fellows with the Independence Institute. They co-authored this article for 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 Parkway, Suite 185, Golden, CO 80401. Phone (303) 279-6536 or FAX to (303) 279-4176; e-mail is

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, Matthew Edgar

The Regional Transportation District (RTD) will not allow Coloradans to have real transit solutions such as jitney service. A jitney is a privately owned minibus that carries passengers from point to point on a flexible schedule.

In 1989, the Florida legislature accidentally created a legal loophole that permitted competitive, unregulated services like jitneys. Within months, over 20 jitney firms had emerged to serve the accidentally created market. Before this loophole, certain regulated jitneys were allowed to operate in conjunction with the Miami version of RTD, Metrobus.

The new jitney services provided faster trip times, shorter wait times, flexibility in boarding locations and drop-off points, and availability of service in late evening. The largest advantage jitney service had over Metrobus in Miami was trip speed and ease of boarding.  In order to board the jitney, the passenger would simply flag down the jitney from any place along the jitneys route not just bus stops fixed in inconvenient locations. In this sense, it acted much like a taxi service. In addition, the jitneys would run on time in order to satisfy their customers.  The irony in Colorados ban on jitneys is that the largest complaints made by RTD passengers are: trip times are too long; the buses are routinely off schedule; the bus stops are not conveniently located; and, that RTD does not provide late night service.

Because of the benefits of faster trips, shorter wait times, better travel times, and flexibility in stopping locations, the Miami jitney services were able to establish a market of their own. In the first year, the jitney services attracted 43,000 to 49,000 passengers per weekday. That breaks down to about 110-115 passengers per vehicle per weekday.  Most of these passengers said that if not for the jitneys, they would take their own car: a new market was created solely for jitneys in Miami.

In addition to all the other benefits, the jitney service was much cheaper. With no government subsidy, the jitney service was able to charge $1 per passenger, whereas Metrobus charged $1.75. RTD charges $1.75 for peak hour travel, and 75 cents for non-peak travel (to which is added a state and federal subsidy worth four times that amount).  To repeat: that $1.00 was the average jitney charge in Miami, without subsidies from the government.

Despite the benefits of faster trips, shorter wait times, flexibility in boarding, and late evening service, Miami ended legal jitney service in 1991. The various jitney services operating without regulations were charged with operating without a license. The fine for the crime of for-hire transportation of people was a charge of $100 to $500 and/or up to 10 days in jail.  The reason for ending jitney service was political. The government simply did not feel comfortable allowing the private sector to compete against a public sector monopoly bus system.

This was evinced before the loophole was started.  In March 1983, the Board of County Commissioners in Miami questioned the conflicting policy of support for private sector and public sector transportation services. The commission chose to support protecting the monopoly by restricting jitneys from large Metrobus areas. A large Metrobus area was defined as any area in which jitney service would have a serious negative impact on existing service.  According to the commissioners, that was ample reason to close the loophole.

Is the argument that jitneys hurt a government-controlled monopoly a worthwhile defense for ending a beneficial service? No. Moreover, is it any reason not to allow jitneys in Colorado? Again, the answer is no. Some make the argument that there is no jitney market in Colorado. No one can answer this question until we actually conduct an experiment in free market jitneys.

In Colorado, most people who do not ride RTD do not ride because it is slow and often off-schedule, bus stops are inconvenient, and routes do not travel to the desired destinations of passengers. All these problems with RTD provide market room for jitneys to provide service. In other words, the jitneys market would be those who are not satisfied with RTD. A potential market 10 to 20 times larger than that served by RTD may be available for jitneys.  If a demonstration found only a fraction of that to be true, the positive impact on traffic congestion at no cost to taxpayers would be immediately noticeable.

Some will still ask, But what about the hurt government monopoly? If RTD loses passengers then they have an incentive to improve and help passengers. Thus, there is really no need to negate a good service like jitneys for the sake of protecting an inefficient government monopoly.  That is what happened in Miami when the government, after only a few months of jitney service, closed the jitney loophole.

By not allowing jitneys, we are forced to choose between riding a slow and inefficient service and driving on congested roads. Jitneys are one solution to decreasing congestion and challenging the government monopoly to improve service.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, and Matthew Edgar is a summer intern at the Independence Institute and a junior at the University of Denver. They wrote this article for 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 Parkway, Suite 185, Golden, CO 80401. Phone (303) 279-6536 or FAX to (303) 279-4176; e-mail is

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 2001

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Usually a terrorist is an extremist hijacking an airliner and holding innocent passengers hostage.  Currently the FTA (Federal Transit Agency) is holding mobility hostage to extort Colorado citizens.

In 1991, an intergovernmental agreement was developed between the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Regional Transportation District, the City of Denver and the FTA to add lanes on I-25 north of central Denver. Assuming that more people could be moved, new multiple-occupant vehicle lanes designed for High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) were added at a cost of $222 million. The FTA contributed $71 million (32%).  Construction was $16 million per lane-mile.  By contrast, today’s proposal to double-deck I-70 to DIA is $10 million per lane-mile and a comparable California highway project recently came in at $3 million per lane-mile.  Did I-25 need to be so expensive?

Currently, though, utility is more important than money already expended.  The pertinent questions are: Can a minor donor like FTA dictate that service potential be wasted?  Isn’t CDOT responsible for efficient operation and for maximizing service to users?  The older general-purpose lanes remain congested. The HOV lanes never move more than 30% of their possible vehicle capacity. During hours open, use averages 16%; over 24 hours, use is less than 9%.  If taxpayer dollars were “real money,” there might be a problem with 84% of $222 million going to waste.

In 1991, the Oklahoma Turnpike became the first state agency in the U.S. to use electronic toll collection. Collection costs declined 91% and tollbooth accidents ceased. Technology and applications improved. This technology permits variable pricing, recognizing the reality that units of highway space and time are neither free nor equal in value. This reality reveals fatal flaws in the gasoline tax as a user fee.

One creative application of electronic toll collection is HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes.  Not only can HOT lanes self-finance new capacity and move more users over the same infrastructure, wasted HOV lane capacity can be captured at NO injury to HOVs. Surplus HOV lane capacity is sold to willing buyers. Price varies to ensure no adverse affect on free flow of traffic.

Recognizing the potential, Senator John Andrews successfully sponsored SB-1999-88.  It mandated that CDOT convert one HOV lane to HOT as a demonstration.  CDOT wisely requested a due date extension to July 1, 2001. Delaying provided the opportunity to evaluate alternatives, quantify conversion costs, estimate revenues, and help others understand the concept.  A $400,000 consultant study concluded that

I-25 would be Colorado’s best demonstration; conversion costs would be $3 million and users would reimburse conversion costs in six years.  Because some traffic will be removed from the free lanes, all I-25 users would benefit.

The FTA opposes this experiment.  A March 8, 2001 letter dictated that the demonstration project could not advance without full reimbursement of the FTA’s original contribution of $71 million.  The FTA stipulated that “general traffic [on HOV lanes] during peak traffic hours shall constitute a breach” of the original 1991 agreement. The FTA correctly asserts that general-purpose traffic might jeopardize the HOV character of the new multiple-occupancy lane. But general-purpose traffic is NOT the proposal.  HOT traffic is controlled via pricing to ensure free flow. Although FTA did not claim that CDOT might mismanage the HOT lanes by under-pricing tolls and attracting too many vehicles, such mismanagement would be counter to CDOT’s interests.  By claiming the project is other than it is, FTA has proven itself to be either ignorant or deceptive.

For those honestly interested in improving mobility and traffic flow, the I-25 HOT lane demonstration project offers small risks and potentially large benefits. FTA’s blocking attempt seems negatively motivated. A failed demonstration would revert to the former condition.  Therefore, they must fear success.  If the latter is true, then the FTA is a demagogue with a pre-defined political agenda, rather than a government agency committed to efficient service for its constituents.

The issue of Federalism (the division of responsibilities between federal and state governments) has become unclear regarding transportation; the U.S. Constitution was never amended to allow a federal role. Several presidents vetoed Congressional attempts to intrude into the state domain of transportation.  The federal share of the gasoline tax was a temporary tax for construction of interstate highways and was created under the guise of national defense to circumvent the Constitutional prohibition.  The same Constitutional limitation is the reason there are no federally-owned highways.  Federal involvement in mass transit as a protection against foreign invasion is preposterous and federal dictation of operations is a dangerous precedent to concede.

“Full use” of taxpayer-funded facilities is reasonable.  CDOT has an obligation to move forward. No objective observer would agree with the FTA’s indefensible stand.  With no injury to the original purpose, FTA’s suggestion of a payoff is extortion. Do Colorado leaders have the courage to stand up to the cowardly and criminal FTA?

Senior Fellow Dennis Polhill wrote this article for 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)

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

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Elementary school students learn the opposite of politics. The Scientific Method, both used in school and required in Science Fair projects, mandates that a proposition, idea, question or assertion be proven. The notion is that facts are verifiable and repeatable. That June 21 has more daylight than any other day of the year can be proven by observing, measuring, and verifying with other research. It is an indisputable scientific fact.

The search for fact-based knowledge is not easy. T.C. Chamberlin seems in regular cycle to be forgotten and rediscovered. Chamberlin was a geologist and President of the University of Wisconsin in 1890 when he wrote his most important work. He observed that even objectively motivated and well-disciplined scientists fell victim to the phenomenon of “premature conclusion.” He wrote, “The central psychological fault is intellectual affection The vitality of study quickly disappears when the object sought is a mere collocation of dead, unmeaning facts A working hypothesis may with the utmost ease degenerate into a ruling theory.” The scientific method breaks down and is corrupted when scientists become biased toward a particular conclusion. Eagerness to reach conclusion, interferes with the ability to challenge veracity. Ultimately, bad science will fail the test of time.

If it is this difficult to for those honestly seeking truth to hold focus, then how successful can the political process be when interests work complex strategies with the sole intent of achieving a preconceived outcome? Truth is less important than victory. Failure has no consequence, because taxpayers are forever burdened to make the best of the situation.

The federally required Environmental Impact Statement process was originally designed to identify and quantify truths. However, the EIS has become a tool of interests to advance political agendas.

National experts have observed the Colorado Southeast Corridor EIS as particularly flawed. This is the study that is supposed to justify Light Rail along I-25. Blatantly false statements in the Major Investment Study should have caused an objective Colorado Department of Transportation to disqualify the offending consultant from consideration to perform the EIS. That company’s business goal of building its light rail resume might also have been sufficient cause to select another.

The Independence Institute produced a 30 page footnoted comprehensive research paper with 38 pages of involved spreadsheets showing that improvements other than light rail would provide more mobility, less congestion and less environmental impact, while assigning most costs to those who directly benefit. Submitted for the public record, the research was summarily dismissed in a 5 page discussion by individuals apparently unable to comprehend the analysis.

Just as Socrates was condemned to death in 399 B.C. for revealing truths that a tyrannical state wished undisclosed, the EIS process has become an enemy of truth. Statements such as, “No light rail system has reduced traffic congestion,” are verifiable.

For the first time, Colorado voters approved use of tax dollars to construct light rail. Whether the Regional Transportation District’s prior outlay of over $300 million was an illegal use of public funds is a subject for another time. Referred Measure 4A was approved with a 65% “yes” vote. But 4A was “joined at the hip” with Referred Measure A, TRANS, which authorized the state to accelerate construction of 28 highways projects by incurring $1.7 billion in debt. TRANS received 62% yes. The “joined at the hip” message was that both projects had to be approved for voters to get either one. In other words, anti-automobile people were obliged to vote for highways in order to get light rail and pro-automobile folks were compelled to vote “yes” on light rail to get highways.

Since November 1999 politicians have rushed to declare the election result a mandate to construct rail. RTD is spending millions for MIS studies in every direction, a monorail to Vail was suggested and light rail in Colorado Springs, Greeley, Fort Collins and paralleling I-25 to Wyoming have been proposed, as if a single centralized technology could solve a decentralized transportation problem.

Voters have defeated every light rail tax increase until appended to desperately needed and long withheld highway improvements. As Chamberlin said, “If our vision is narrowed by a preconceived theory as to what will happen, we are almost certain to misinterpret the facts and to misjudge the issue.”

Not only is there no mandate to build rail, there is no factual basis to conclude that Denver will record the first ever light rail success. The Transportation Industrial Complex uses misperceptions, including the phony EIS process, to sustain and grow itself.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow in Transportation Policy at 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 I2I

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Like here in Denver, the Orange County Transportation Authority in California has expressed an interest in constructing light rail. The conflict of interest is obvious. If OCTA finds in favor of LRT, it gets a bigger budget, more staff, more prestige, and more power.

Suspecting that the OCTA might be overstating the benefits, a Grand Jury was convened to investigate the claims being made by the local transit agency and to study the process by which this decision will be made.

The Grand Jury Report was released in May 1999. The Grand Jury was not kind in its comments about OCTA activities. Jurors looked at 12 LRT systems built in various parts of the country over the last two decades and found that none can be called a success. The report stated that the national experience with urban LRT systems ability to solve traffic congestion, air pollution, and related urban problems has been poor.

Criticizing the OCTA for doing more promoting than studying, the Jurys analysis suggests that Orange County would experience, negligible impact on traffic congestion, less effectiveness than predicted, more expense than predicted, an inflexible system, and no improvement in commuter travel times, energy conservation, or safety.

The Jury went on to instruct OCTA to amend outreach programs to include data on the national experience, to establish and publish measurable goals, and that disinterested experts should provide historical perspectives. The Jury suggested that the public deserves full disclosure of all perceived benefits, drawbacks, costs and impacts that this project would have before it is approved or disapproved.

In short, the Orange County Grand Jury ordered its government transit agency to stop lying.

Perhaps a Grand Jury is needed to look into the Regional Transportation District. RTDs recent cancellation of its public forum on LRT is merely the most recent example in a long history of questionable actions.

The decision to have the Great Debate was approved early in 1999 by the new RTD Board. With a budget of $30,000, six nationally recognized experts were invited to debate both sides of the issue on September 13.The Urban Land Institute, a pro-LRT group, was allowed to become a co-sponsor by contributing an additional $10,000.

Because the question about LRT effectiveness is nationwide, interest was national. C-SPAN and CNN considered coverage. Advocates on both sides looked forward to offering their best arguments.

The debate controversy started when RTD decided to charge a higher admission fee to the general public than to elected officials and bureaucrats. With some free admissions, the anticipated 200 attendees would have produced about $5,000.RTDs decision to cancel the debate will cost RTD more money than to have waived the registration fee altogether. Is it possible that another agenda is at play? Is it possible that RTD feared that the debate would put too much information in front of the public immediately prior to its November tax election?

RTD deceit has a long history. The 1973 special election that gave RTD its current sales tax base experienced several election irregularities. Voters have yet to be offered the opportunity to re-authorize the 10 year plan approved in 1973.That election authorized 20% to increased bus service. The remainder was for rapid transit construction (not LRT). Having spent the money on bus service, RTD asked for another tax increase in 1980 for LRT.

Undeterred by the 1980 defeat, RTD continued to spend millions without authorization on planning and right-of-way. Finally in 1990 RTD spent $116,000,000 to construct the LRT demonstration line. But before demonstration line performance data was available, RTD proceeded to extend LRT south on Santa Fe Drive. The extension was to cost taxpayers $177,000,000.At RTD the $20,000,000 spent on Santa Fe right-of-way is not a cost because it is hidden. In total, RTD has subversively spent over $300,000,000 on LRT without authorization.

Much of what RTD tells the public is less than true. RTD frequently claims increasing ridership without mentioning that they count boardings, not people. Even those increases are smaller than population growth or RTDs increasing tax take. This means, of course, that unit costs are increasing and market share is decreasing.

The LRT ridership numbers estimated for the I-25 Corridor are 30,000 versus 300,000 for the highway. But the counting methods differ. Similar counting yields that LRTs 3% market share would serve about 10% to 15% as many people as a single highway lane.

RTD has spent millions to propagate the false perception that LRT will relieve traffic congestion and air pollution. It is time that the truth be told. Because RTD cannot be trusted, Colorado should convene a Grand Jury to expose the truth.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow in Transportation Policy at 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 Independence Institute

An analysis of the Colorado state government’s flawed plan for I-25

Issue Paper

By Stephen R. Mueller, P. E. and Dennis Polhill, P. E.


This report presents a detailed analysis and critique of the Southeast Corridor plan for Interstate 25 through Denver. The authors spent nearly six months gathering the baseline data and developing the methodology and new analysis tools contained in the report.

It is a timely report for two reasons:

1) The public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was still open at the time the full report was published. The report was submitted into the official record to show that there is a better way to analyze a project’s impacts on the public than was presented in the DEIS.

2) The November 1999 ballot contains two measures directly relating to the information contained in this report. Referendum “A”; a statewide ballot issue, is seeking voter approval to bond future federal highway revenues. In the Denver metropolitan area, voters are being asked to allow the Regional Transportation District (RTD) to bond their tax revenues.

Findings of Importance Contained in the Report:
“The goal must be to create a transportation system that offers congestion free driving, better environmental outcomes, and lower taxpayer costs.”


The “official” documents relating to the proposed “improvements” on Interstate 25 show light rail will have no impact on traffic congestion. The conclusion isn’t clearly stated, but is hidden in the numbers and tables contained in the documents.

Proponents of 4A, the more light rail boondoggle proposal, shout that the plan will “take 17,000 cars off the road.” Not only is the statement preposterous, it is NOT a measurement of the traffic congestion that will exist on the freeway. All of the official documents show numerous areas throughout the project and on surrounding facilities where the projected level of service will be rated “F” -which means a completely congested, gridlock condition. Forget the rest of the rhetoric, light rail will NOT solve the problem. It is in the official documents, and finding is further supported in the analysis provided in this report.

Special Interests, particularly in the Southeast Corridor and downtown Denver, have made large contributions to the campaign to build light rail to the Denver Technological Center (DTC) under the mistaken impression that traffic will flow more smoothly if enough people ride the new trolley. There will only be a maximum of eight trolleys per hour running to the DTC, and the 1997 Major Investment Study (MIS) supporting a “light rail only” solution projected that ridership would increase from 1.8% of DTC employees to 3.2%. Even if RTD was able to increase their market share by this amount, it is simply not enough people to have any impact on the highway. Normal traffic growth and latent demand will prevail, and the highway will gridlock.


This report shows that the DEIS recommended “preferred alternative,” which does not involve user pricing, would result in zero improvement in traffic congestion over the 1996 condition the on the very day it opens. Again, there are lots of “Level of Service F” ratings contained in the DEIS. The ever-increasing traffic growth, combined with latent demand (as explained in the complete report), indicate that the CDOT’s new road will be gridlocked on the day it opens.

Under the plan presented by CDOT and RTD, motorists are stuck in gridlocked traffic today, they will be stuck in gridlocked traffic during construction, but what is worse is that they will be doomed to gridlocked traffic on the day this new project opens and forever into the future. Motorists who have survived the construction process will not be pleased.


This report clearly shows that in order to achieve congestion free driving on I-25, a pricing mechanism must be implemented. This report recommends that the existing three free lanes on I-25 be supplemented with new High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes. High occupancy vehicles, such as buses, vanpools, company carpools, and taxicabs would be guaranteed access into the new lanes. The remaining capacity is then sold to people in single occupant automobiles who are willing to pay a toll to use the facility. The price of the toll is variable, depending on the amount of traffic in the HOT lanes. HOT lanes are currently being successfully used in California and Texas, so the technology and benefits of this system has already been proven. People would still be able to choose the free lanes – and the traffic flow in the free lanes will be improved as a result of people who are willing to pay a toll to drive even faster.

HOT lanes offer a future of congestion free driving, and those who receive this benefit will be the ones who pay the costs of the highway improvements. HOT lanes offer far more choices to people than fixed-guideway mass transit systems, and they are environmentally superior and more tax-payer friendly than either light rail or new free lanes.


Many people are being misled about the Environmental Impact Statement process: Public policy is being driven awry by the threat of lawsuit. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has NO AUTHORITY to dictate a specific transportation technology. It is simply not true that if the voters turn down light rail, as it has been in the past, that the highway can’t be widened.

What is true, however, is that any new plan will have to demonstrate “conformity” with the EPA approved air quality plans. The HOT lane proposal contained in this document should easily meet the EPA criteria. This report indicates that HOT lanes offer the ability to achieve a 29% larger reduction in mobile emissions than the plan presented in the DEIS. This plan, therefore, is more environmentally friendly than the DEIS. The official models, however, would still have to be run, which could delay construction for another year. The question voters should ask themselves is “Am I willing to wait a year for a new plan to be developed if I can save myself THREE BILLION DOLLARS?” – Any new plan will include additional highway lanes on I-25. We the People demand it!


Light Rail is hardly rapid transit. The current LRT system speed in Denver is between 15′ and 20 miles per hour. Because the proposed SE corridor light rail would have to merge into this system, it can’t operate at an average speed that is much faster. The travel time from Park Meadows to Downtown Denver will approach a full hour on the new trolley. HOT lanes, offering congestion free driving for most of the distance at 55 miles per hour, will get people downtown in a fraction of the time.


The planning process has been manipulated by special interests, even to the point that blatant mistruths were included in early versions of “official” documents. The MIS and DEIS are hardly more than propaganda pieces intended to rationalize the view favoring light rail transit (LRT). A number of flaws in the DEIS for the I-25 southeast corridor are presented in the report:

A) Failure to adequately scope and analyze the available alternatives.
B) Predetermined LRT placement precludes adequate analysis in the DEIS.
C} Predetermined LRT placement will result in tremendous unaccounted-for future costs to upgrade I-25 in order to resolve future traffic congestion problems.
D) Failure of the DEIS to adequately address the costs and benefits of the various configurations for potential use of the ROW.
E) Traffic growth projections in the DEIS are limited and weakly analyzed.
F} Latent Demand has not been adequately addressed in the document.
G) Impulse driving impacts on congestion were not considered due to limitations in the scoping process.
H) The counting methodology for automobiles versus LRT boardings is inherently flawed.
I) There was inadequate discussion of the potential costs of obtaining additional ROW or providing an alternative engineering solution in several bottleneck areas north of I-225.
J) HOT lanes, given no mention in the DEIS, have been shown to be a substantially superior solution in this report.


Governor Owens and the Colorado Transportation Commission have declared that the majority of the bonds would be used to finance the project analyzed in this report. The measure itself, however, does not specify the actual projects that would be advanced or added if the referendum passes.

In order to construct the HOT lanes, however, it will be necessary to issue bonds. The toll revenues, rather than general tax dollars, will be used to pay off the bonds. This would allow the bond money authorized by Referendum A to be used on other projects throughout Colorado, as designated by the Transportation Commission.


It is clear from this report that the plans to place LRT in the SE Corridor must be stopped. The ROW is needed in order to achieve the socially optimal usage for this transportation facility. RTD should instead plan to invest in additional buses that can use the congestion free HOT lanes, and operate at higher speeds than can be achieved by- LRT. LRT will doom the Denver metro area to subsidies and future tax increases, and a decreasing proportion of people riding mass transit. The increases in the local costs already presented the LRT’s ever changing cost estimates should outrage voters. The greatest cost, however, will be the future need to double-deck I-25 — wasting literally billions of tax dollars that can be saved by using the ROW now. LRT is not financially, environmentally, or functionally justifiable for the I-25 Southeast Corridor. HOT lanes fulfill all the criteria, and those who receive the benefits will pay the costs.

Entire Paper: Let Those Who Receive The Benefits Pay the Costs (PDF)

Copyright (C) 1999 – Independence Institute

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, Chris Baker

Have you ever been stuck in traffic on the freeway only to look over and see a nearly empty car-pool lane? While they may have seemed like a good idea, unfortunately High Occupancy Vehicle lanes are woefully underused. For most of us, carpooling to work is simply impractical, as a result HOV lanes remain near-empty during rush-hour while unrestricted lanes are often bumper-to-bumper.

Colorado Governor Owens is expected to sign legislation that would offer a  solution to the problem of low use in HOV lanes, while at the same time reducing traffic congestion. This legislation would allow the conversion of HOV lanes into High Occupancy Toll lanes or HOT lanes.

Simply put, converting HOV lanes into HOT lanes would allow commuters the  opportunity pay a toll to use HOV lanes without carpooling. The toll rate would vary to insure that a “free flow” of traffic is sustained. The incentives for carpool formation are unchanged. Carpoolers and buses would  have the same free access to these lanes as they do now, but these lanes would no longer be so dramatically underused.

While not widespread, the usage of HOT lanes across the country is growing. On Interstate 15 in San Diego, a HOT lane that opened in 1996 has been hailed a great success by commuters and transportation experts alike.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of HOT lanes is consumer choice. From time to  time all of us find ourselves in a situation where time is of the essence only to be stuck in traffic. Therein lies the advantage of a HOT lane. You would have the option of paying a toll to bypass traffic when you needed to  and not paying when it wasnt important.

Critics of HOT lanes are fond of calling them Lexus Lanes, implying somehow  that only the wealthy will benefit. This implication is incorrect and overlooks certain market fundamentals. Studies of California-91 HOT lanes found virtually no socio-economic difference between users and non-users of the HOT lanes. Non-users of HOT lanes favor them because there is less traffic in the free lanes causing their trip times to decrease.

Clearly some people who can afford to do so will be willing to pay every day  to either save time or to increase their personal safety. However, nearly half the users of the California-91 HOT lanes only used it once a week, incurring toll costs that never exceeded more than a few dollars. HOT lanes are more akin to Ford lanes than to Lexus lanes.

HOV lanes were originally conceived as an means to entice Americans to  car-pool, thereby reducing pollution that cars emit into the environment. But the unwillingness of commuters to carpool have left these the environmental benefits of HOV lanes largely unrealized. Converting these lanes to HOT lanes will be a significant step towards realizing some environmental benefit.

When traffic congestion exists, air pollution emissions are 250% higher than  in free-flowing traffic. By decreasing congestion and increasing the free-flow of traffic, HOT lanes clearly reduce pollution.

As a result, support for HOT lanes comes from all across the political  spectrum. Not only do HOT lanes find support from Republican advocates of more highways, but also from environmental groups who see HOT lanes as a legitimate way to reduce pollution emissions from automobiles.

The HOT lane legislation expected to be signed by the Governor calls for the  Colorado Department of Transportation to convert one existing HOV lane into a HOT lane as an experimental project. In all likelihood, this will be the HOV lane on I-25 north between downtown Denver and the Boulder Turnpike. If, as expected, this project is a success the concept of HOT lanes should be expanded to other areas as well.

The metropolitan Denver area is straining under the burden of traffic  congestion.  And the cost of traffic congestion is staggering. Studies have shown that the economic impact of traffic congestion nationally is in the billions of dollars. Used properly, HOT lanes are an effective tool to deal with that congestion.


Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Chris Baker writes on state issues for the Institute.

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 I2I

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

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

There is no truth to the belief that light rail improves traffic congestion. A look at the failure of light rail in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere shows how wise Denver-area voters were to reject light rail in a landslide.

Locals in Portland report “light rail actually put more cars on the road.” Portland’s Environmental Coalition opposes building more rail because light rail forces more people into cars. Portland’s experience is not unique.

Of the 10 metropolitan areas that have built light rail in the last decade, only San Diego reports a higher system ridership. In other words, in nine out of ten cities, after light rail is built, total mass transit ridership declines. The decline occurs because consumers are rational. Rail forces more transfers, which increases travel times and decreases convenience. San Diego’s ridership is up only because light rail takes tourists to Mexico.

All infrastructure, including roads, is constructed with fixed capacity. If the government owns the infrastructure, and treats the infrastructure as collective property, then there are no incentives against overuse of the infrastructure.

Overcrowding does not occur when infrastructure is privately owned, as with hotel rooms, restaurants, airlines, shopping malls, athletic clubs, telephones, and electricity. Pricing and other value-added incentives abound. Competition for customers encourages innovation.

Fortunately for commuters, automobile technology improvements that can be implemented in just a few years will allow even the most congested roads to carry many more vehicles.

Moreover, innovative programs to shift highway demand away from peak times (rush hour) towards times when highways are not congested are being considered all over the United States. Gridlock may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to market forces.

No wonder that collectivists were in such a hurry to push a massive tax increase for state-controlled transit. In a few years, the problem will be solved, without their help.

But, mass transit advocates insist, mass transit is not just about getting people from one place to another. Mass transit is complicated by its “entitlement” component. A 1989 management study of the State of Colorado went so far as to suggest that transit be removed from the Transportation Department and reassigned to the Social Services Department.

But as a social welfare institution, mass transit is a very poor use of resources. About 40% of metro area transportation funding goes to mass transit, even though mass transit carries under 2% of commuters. Subsidies pay 80% of the cost of every mass transit boarding. Such huge subsidies to such a small group might be justifiable if the subsidies were for people in need. But over half of all mass transit are affluent.

In any case, travel in the metro area is increasingly from suburb to suburba type of travel which is unserviceable by a large centrally controlled bureaucracy.

The national trends are just as bad for mass transit as are the Denver trends. Mass transit ridership has declined since World War II in every census in every city. The reality is that fewer people live in tenements and work in factories.

Transit fans play on nostalgia and point to old systems as “working.” Yet Chicago ridership today is 1/500th of its peak. The numbers worsen when expressed as market share after population growth adjustment.

Even in New York City, where population density is 10 times Denver’s, where congestion is so bad that many people cannot own a car, and rail travel volume is nearly 5 times that of second place Chicago, rail accounts for less than 10% of all travel.

Subsidies in 1995 dollars for mass transit total $350 billion, roughly the same cost as constructing the entire interstate highway system. Yet ridership has never been lower. Even the U.S. Federal Transit Agency, which gives out transit subsidies, admits that mass transit has problems.

To move from dysfunctional bus service to even less functional rail is clearly no solution and serves only to protect a bureaucracy from the possibility of downsizing. If a successful bureaucratic-style approach to mass transit were known, it would have been tried somewhere and copied.

It may be that the massive centrally controlled protected government monopoly approach to mass transit is no longer workable. If so, it may be time to take a look at the opposite approach: privatize, devolve, and legalize competition.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank located in Golden, Colorado.

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 Independence Institute

Issue Paper

By Stephen R. Mueller and Dennis Polhill
Senior Fellows, The Independence Institute

In Brief:

Congress is considering giving Denver hundreds of millions of dollars to construct an eight mile extension of the existing five mile light rail system. The Regional Transportation District (RTD) is pushing for a vote on a tax increase to fund even more light rail. With new EPA air quality standards looming over the city, the battle over the light rail system is about to begin. The facts show that light rail in Denver is a waste of money:

  • Light rail requires subsidies forever. Every light rail project in the nation, once funded by the federal government, has requested additional federal funding to provide operating assistance. Refusing to fund new light rail projects will help Congress avoid future additional construction and operating subsidies.
  • The costs are too high. Light rail transit is one of the most expensive forms of transportation. Even RTD – the Colorado entity pushing light rail – estimates that light rail in Denver will cost more than twenty million dollars a mile to construct. Other forms of mass transportation systems can carry the same number of riders at a much lower cost.
  • The benefits are too low. Light rail will not reduce traffic congestion, nor will it improve air quality. In addition, there will be no economic benefit. In fact, there will be a huge net loss to the economy.
  • There are better solutions to Denver’s transportation needs. The amount of travel done by rail is a fraction of that done by highway vehicles. This situation is not going to change with the construction of light rail. People have increasingly decided to use their personal automobiles over public transportation services. Additional highway improvements, carpool lanes, and buses would be far more beneficial to Denver than light rail.
  • The people of Denver have already voted against light rail, rejecting it by a 54 to 46 percent margin.

Entire Paper: Light Rail in Denver – Taking the Taxpayers for a Ride (PDF)

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, Stephen R. Mueller

The citizens and taxpayers of the Denver metropolitan region have shown their willingness to fund numerous imaginative public works and civic improvement projects over the past decade. Denver International Airport, at a cost of nearly five billion dollars, leads the list. But don’t forget the Colorado Convention Center, Coors Field, and Elitch’s. Then there’s the proposed new Ocean Journey aquarium and a new Broncos stadium. All of these imaginative projects were (and are being) sold to the public using questionable economic assumptions. Citizens were promised that by investing our tax dollars many economic benefits would accrue to the entire region.

For some of the projects, the promises may have come true. But for others, the promises were clearly lies from the very beginning. While the people making the promises may have been genuine in their beliefs that the projects would bring public benefit, they failed to recognize and publicly state the true and complete costs of the projects they were promoting.

Mass transit advocates are taking a different but no less imaginative route. For the past fifteen years the citizens of Denver have been told over and over again that mass transit will clean the air and alleviate traffic congestion. They know that when you continuously read, see, and hear the same information for a prolonged period of time that eventually you will start to believe it – even if it’s not true.

The Regional Transportation District has an annual advertising budget of nearly a million dollars per year. RTD buys newspaper ads, radio ads, and television ads. They sponsor community events. Do you know of any other governmental monopoly that spends that kind of money to promote itself? RTD is clearly trying to do more than simply inform the public about its services, it is trying to influence public opinion. Why? RTD wants light rail.

Do they want light rail because it will clean the air? No! RTD’s own numbers show that there will be less than 1/10th of 1% reduction in air pollution if we build a light rail system.

Do they want light rail because it will solve traffic congestion? No! RTD’s own numbers show that there will only be 1,600 new mass transit riders if they build the Southwest Corridor Light Rail. Considering that Denver’s two million people driver nearly forty million miles a day, removing 1,600 people from the roads won’t be noticed.

So why does RTD want to build light rail? The primary reason given in the recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is that building light rail will ensure reliable transit times. Excuse us for asking, RTD, but are you really telling us that you want to spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for that? Have you forgotten about cost-benefit comparisons? If we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, let’s at least do it for sensible reasons.

Could we offer another reason that RTD is supporting light rail? If light rail expanded to these other corridors, this agency’s budget will grow from $300 million dollars per year to almost a billion. Excuse us for being skeptical, but there are no other governmental agencies of that size in Colorado, except for the State itself.

The Independence Institute has gathered the numbers for the Southwest Corridor Light Rail line, and the numbers clearly show that it is a boondoggle of monumental proportions. Unfortunately for the taxpayers, the mass transit advocates are very imaginative. They are in the midst of “major investment studies” on three other corridors – and the word that we get is that these studies are being slanted to show the need for even more light rail.

A recent Forbes article told how the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles has spent three billion dollars on rail, but had twenty percent decline in ridership since 1985. How much more money do Americans have to spend on light rail before they realize that the promises are false.

The proper role of government is to provide the things that citizens can’t provide themselves. The fact of the matter is that nearly all of us prefer the comfort, safety, and convenience of our own private automobiles – and we are willing to pay the costs associated with the automobile. While we agree that it is proper to fund public transportation services for those who are unable to access private modes, our generosity stops considerably short of the billion dollar per year level.

Instead of building light rail, why don’t we use this money to buy something that we can all use and enjoy – like open space and well-maintained highways.


Stephen R. Mueller, P.E. and Dennis Polhill, P.E. are Senior Fellows with the Independence Institute, a think-tank in Golden, Colorado.

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)

Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Watch out Colorado.  The Regional Transportation District (RTD) has an insatiable appetite for tax dollars and they are eyeing the state coffers.  They have a plan to divert $40 to $50 million of state highway funds to extend light rail to Littleton.

RTD got its first taste of state revenues when they received a windfall from outside the district that allowed them to build the Light Rail Demonstration Project in downtown Denver.  Now they want a massive tax rate increase of 67% plus $50-60 million from the highway fund.  This kind of irresponsible behavior is a signal to policy leaders that it is time to engage in serious analysis of Colorados transportation problems and the role of structures like RTD.

Our reliance on government run mass transit started in the mid 1950s as trolleys went out of business and private bus systems attempted to fill the void.  However, as automobile ownership grew, buses eventually became subsidized operations.  To protect their revenue stream, regulations were adopted that prohibited competition.  As usual, this did not solve the problem and municipal bus systems are today even more unprofitable.  The U.S. Census Bureau data from 1980 and 1990 show a nationwide decline in mass transit ridership from 7.0% to 5.4%; and a Denver decline from 6.2% to 4.2%.  Because ridership has declined so severely the need for tax subsidies has increased and costs have skyrocketed.

The federal government has realized after pumping over $100 billion into mass transit that free money cannot reverse trends and will never yield a return on investment.

Colorado taxpayers have also been extremely generous.  Within the regional transportation district, taxpayers spend almost as much money on mass transit subsidies (.6% sales tax = $300 per family per year = $150 million) as they do to operate and maintain the entire 10,000 mile metro area road network!  We have been coughing up huge sums in the hope that somehow big, bureaucratized government agencies can reduce traffic congestion and move millions of us around without polluting the environment.

This line of reasoning does not take into consideration the massive changes that have occurred in our society over the last decade.  We have become more diverse, flexible and free.  Government planners have, for the most part, not come to grips with this phenomenon.  Transportation experts who propose the expenditure of billions of dollars to build systems on the industrial model of fixed routes, fixed schedules and serving concentrations of population have not yet made the intellectual transition into the technological age.

More and more people, inside and outside of government, have come to the realization that there is something very wrong with the way we are attempting to address our transportation problems in Colorado.  Some have suggested that perhaps the problems are structural in nature and propose to change the elected board of RTD back to an appointed board or merge it into another giant bureaucracy the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).  Then, it is posited, this massive, dysfunctional bureaucracy would suddenly become compassionate and efficient.  Another version of the bigger-is-better idea is a merger of RTD, the urban drainage district, the cultural district, the baseball district and others with the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG).

The concept of removing local control of such functions to a massive central control bureaucracy is also an industrial age idea and one thoroughly discredited.  That is why we should not turn away from an elected board of mere citizens.  Although there is no guarantee they will not become pawns of the bureaucracy, an elected board gives us a fighting chance to reshape the old system.

We believe the answers lie in the opposite approach.  For instance, a Boulder consulting firm has released a study that proves that smaller, more frequent buses decrease costs and increase ridership substantially (about 200%).  We also have the positive results of privatization.  When forced by the Colorado legislature to contract for 20% of its bus routes, RTD recognized initial savings of 45% even though routes, stops, schedules, fares and equipment were fixed by the bid specifications.  If RTD were a rational organization, it would have immediately privatized all of its bus routes or cut its budget in half.

Of course, exposing the benefits of privatization to a government agency is like forcing a vampire to stare at the sun.  It is, however, time to open the curtains.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colorado.

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