Northern Colorado’s population growth continues. Since 1990, Weld and Larimer Counties have added almost 183,000 new residents, a 45 percent increase. And it is projected that nearly 697,000 people will call the region home in 2020.
Accompanying this is a growing demand for transportation. The Northern Front Range Municipal Planning Organization predicts vehicle miles will increase 57 percent over the next 20 years. Expected consequences include increased congestion and pollution, and diminished roadway safety.
Recently, advocates for a Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) introduced a proposal to address Northern Colorado’s transportation challenges. The RTA would be funded by new sales and use taxes and vehicle registration fees. Much of the revenue will be dedicated to select capital and transit projects. Participating governments will share remaining money to fund local projects.
In the works for several months, local governments are now evaluating the proposal. Their support is necessary for it to appear on the November ballot.
What happens in Loveland does not stay in Loveland
One motivation for the RTA is the observation that Northern Colorado is an integrated economic region. For example, it is common for someone to live in Greeley, work in Fort Collins and shop in Loveland.
But regionalism extends beyond household travel. Our research shows that economic "shocks" in northern Colorado quickly spread across county lines. An important benefit of a regional approach is that it internalizes economic spillovers.
Scale economies are another benefit. While individual governments may find a large project prohibitively expensive, it becomes affordable if costs are shared by a bigger population. For transportation, it may be more cost effective to coordinate a few large, regional projects rather than many smaller, independent ones.
An adequate transportation system also has important economic benefits. For households, congestion can increase travel times. A recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) shows that the average traveler in a small US city experienced 13 hours of congestion-induced travel delay in 2003. In Denver, the delay was 51 hours.
For some businesses, a well-maintained infrastructure is critical. Other economists have shown that while road improvements may not cause new economic growth, failing infrastructure can lead to decline.
Finally, improved transit and eased congestion can help reduce greenhouse gasses. The TTI reports that congestion-induced delays resulted in nearly 1.3 million gallons of excess fuel consumption in the average small city in 2003. This translates into 24.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
There is no perfect solution
But the proposal has its critics. Some suggest that better roads will simply spur sprawl, thus failing to fix the problem. Others argue that the primary effect of road improvements is to increase nearby real estate values. Still others fear that their tax dollars will be spent elsewhere, thus generating no real benefits to their own community. Finally, some believe that impact fees and increased gas taxes are "fairer" than the sales tax.
There is some validity to all of these arguments. Accordingly, addressing a regional problem is a complicated political process. And choosing not to form an RTA is certainly an option; it’s just not a solution.
Martin Shields is an associate professor of economics at Colorado State University. His research on Northern Colorado’s economy is sponsored by a partnership between the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corporation and CSU’s Office of Economic Development. He can be reached at Martin.Shields@colostate.edu.
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