Boulder, Transportation, and the New Century

Professor Albert Allen Bartlett

The following invited guest editorial was published in the Boulder Planet January 12, 2000, Pg.10

The 21st Century in Boulder County will probably be dominated by problems caused by population growth, as was much of the last half of the 20th Century. In the last 50 years the population of the City of Boulder increased by a factor of five, from 20,000 to about 100,000. In the new Century, the population of the City will certainly continue to grow, but at a slower rate. The growth thus far has produced terrible transportation problems, and it is absolutely certain that continued population growth will make these problems worse.

Boulder's transportation lifeline is the Boulder-Denver Turnpike, which was finished in the mid- 20th Century. The Turnpike was a limited-access highway which one could enter/exit only at Boulder, Broomfield, and Denver, so it provided pleasant, rapid, transportation through the open countryside between these cities. The Turnpike was paid for by tolls paid by the residents of the three cities, and the tolls were removed when the construction costs had been paid. But, absolutely predictably, the Turnpike generated new traffic which led to demands for new points of access. So several new interchanges were added, with the result that the limited access feature of the Turnpike, and hence its convenience, was largely destroyed. Now we read of calls that tolls be reinstated on the Turnpike so that residents of Boulder, Broomfield, and Denver can pay again for the Turnpike. Because of a fundamental truth, paying for the Turnpike a second time in the 21st Century will not produce the same ease and convenience of transportation that we got when we paid for it the first time back in the mid-20th Century.

This fundamental 20th Century truth is that ADDING LANES TO URBAN HIGHWAYS DOES NOT ALLEVIATE TRAFFIC JAMS, RATHER, IT ENLARGES THE TRAFFIC JAMS. If the Turnpike is enlarged from four lanes to six, we will see years of costly construction and traffic delays whose final effect will be the transformation of four lanes of jammed traffic into six lanes of jammed traffic. This is not speculation; it is a fact that has been proven over and over again in all parts of the country. If the new lanes are HOV lanes, buses and only a small fraction of the cars will be able to use them, so most of the growing traffic will be single occupant vehicles which will be confined to the present four lanes. The net result will be very little improvement. Yet adding lanes appeals to politicians, because this will allow them to claim that they have done something to "solve" the problems. In this case, the word "solve" means "enlarge" the problem."

The most urgently needed transportation improvement for the Boulder-Denver corridor in the first years of the 21st Century is to restore the 19th Century transportation mode, namely the commuter railroads. The BNSF rail line runs today from from Boulder through Broomfield to Denver. The tracks exist. All one would need to start commuter rail service between Boulder, Broomfield, and Denver would be a few coaches and diesel locomotives. Boulder has large number of people commuting both in and out each work day, which would make for efficient commuter service because trains would have substantial passenger loads running to Boulder and out of Boulder. If the Cities of Boulder and Broomfield bought land along the tracks for stations and for park-and-ride facilities, fast reliable two-way commuter service could be up and running in a few months. The line and the service could then be upgraded as was needed.

In the last years of the 20th Century this commuter rail option was put forth frequently in Boulder and Denver. It was supported by almost everyone except the people in power. Now this option is being studied, but enormous price tags have been attached to the proposal, as though the costs were being inflated to make commuter rail look less attractive when compared to the popular costly, alternative non-solution of adding more lanes to the Turnpike. Even at these very high proposed costs, the commuter rail service would be a bargain because we have no choice. As I have indicated, the enormously costly addition of HOV lanes to the Turnpike will provide little relief. The commuter rail service on the BNSF rail line should be up and running quickly so that people who need to commute between Boulder, Broomfield and Denver can do so with speed, comfort and convenience. Other cities around the U.S. have put in commuter rail service on existing railroads. It is too late for us to lead, but if we hurry, we can be followers.

An advertisement from about a century ago for the Union Pacific Railroad told how one could travel from Boulder to Denver in about 55 minutes in beautiful "Palace Cars." Now, a century later, if our leaders will lead, we can easily and quickly have a rail commuter system that will be as fast as the Colorado pioneers had a century ago, but it will be much more comfortable. Think how nice it would be to enter the 21st Century with convenient, reliable, dependable, all-weather rail commuter service between Boulder, Broomfield, and and downtown Denver.