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Publish Date: 10/20/2005

Turnpike is top ‘heartburn highway’

DENVER — The Boulder Turnpike is the worst of 50 “heartburn highways” causing motorists the most stress in Colorado, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The segment of U.S. Highway 36 between Colo. Highway 157 and Interstate 25 topped the list of problem roadways designated and ranked by TRIP — a Washington, D.C.-based transportation research organization formerly known as The Road Information Program — because of traffic- safety and congestion concerns.

Other stretches of highways in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties also made the list. Frank Moretti, TRIP’s policy and research director, said his organization’s study of Colorado highways estimated that inadequate roadways are costing motorists $3.3 billion annually because of crashes, lost time and fuel due to congestion, and increased wear and tear on vehicles.

Moretti said the study showed that 30 percent of the state’s urban highways were congested in 2003, the latest year for which data were available.

The report also said 43 percent of the state’s roads were in poor or mediocre condition, and an average of 685 people are killed each year in traffic crashes in Colorado.

TRIP’s report was unveiled at a Colorado Department of Transportation headquarters news conference, where Gov. Bill Owens said it “should cause every Coloradan to be concerned.”

Owens used the report to bolster campaign support for Referendums C and D.

Referendum C asks voters to allow the state to keep a projected $3.7 billion in tax revenue over the coming five years, and Referendum D would tap part of that revenue to underwrite bonds, including up to $1.7 billion in borrowing for highway improvements.

Owens noted Wednesday that 24 of the 50 “heartburn highways” in the TRIP report, including the Boulder Turnpike, would be in line for shares of bond money if voters approve C and D.

As approved last summer by the Colorado Transportation Commission, the list of Referendum D highway projects would include $37.5 million for transit and highway improvements to U.S. 36 through Boulder, Broomfield, Jefferson and Adams counties.

Owens said the TRIP report “quantifies the very real costs to drivers when funding for highways doesn’t keep up with needs.”

The governor said Colorado’s transportation budget is “in a crisis,” and the money annually available for construction and maintenance has declined by 41 percent since 2001.

However, Independence Institute President Jon Caldara, one of the ballot referendums’ chief critics, said in an interview before the unveiling of the TRIP report that “very little of C and D goes to highways.”

Caldara suggested that “if we want to have a transportation issue” on the ballot, it should be restricted to transportation and exclude the other state services, programs and projects proposed in C and D.

Caldara, a former chairman of the Denver Regional Transportation District board, further suggested that the Colorado Department of Transportation could free up more money for highways by spending less on transit.

But CDOT executive director Tom Norton said his department doesn’t spend any money on transit and that those expenses largely are the responsibility of local and regional transit agencies.

Owens agreed with Norton, saying CDOT’s budget “is almost entirely for the motorist.”

Owens added: “This is another example of Jon Caldara mixing facts with fiction.”

Moretti said that, while his organization does not take positions on state ballot issues, this is “a critical time ... to educate the public about their (highway) system.”

The TRIP report said vehicle miles traveled in Colorado increased by 60 percent from 1990 to 2003, from 27 billion vehicle miles to 43 billion. Projections call for that mileage to increase by another 45 percent by 2020, to 62 billion miles.

About 14 percent of Colorado’s major roads were in poor condition and in need of resurfacing or reconstruction in 2003, TRIP reported, and 29 percent were in mediocre condition.

Colorado Transportation Commissioner Bill Swenson of Longmont, a supporter of C and D, said that even before the TRIP report was unveiled, “we knew we were running short of funds” for needed construction and maintenance.

Owens said state fuel-tax collections — a primary source of the state’s share of highway construction and maintenance money — are projected to decline next year, while highway construction materials and related expenses are escalating. Without passage of C and D, no significant new money will be available for projects, the governor said.

C and D would allow the state “to gain back some of the ground that we’ve lost” in transportation spending, Owens said, “but it’s only a start” toward chipping away at a backlog of projects.

John Fryar can be reached by e-mail at jfryar@times-call.com.

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