Sunday, September 28, 2008

The FasTracks Dilemma: Increasing Sales Taxes is the Right Solution

The Denver Region's ambitious public transit build out has run into financial difficulties. Due to escalating construction and right of way acquisition costs, the price tag for building out the current system has increased by almost $2 billion to $7.9 billion. Additionally sales tax revenues which are financing the system have been below forecasts due to the sluggish economy. If the system is to be built as planned by 2017, additional money will need to be raised. Otherwise the system will be scaled back or delayed.

Since the vote approving FasTracks in 2004, two other things have changed as well. First, gas prices have more than doubled from just under $2 per gallon to just under $4 per gallon with further increases likely to occur. Second, the urgency of reducing carbon emissions to stave off global warning has become increasingly clear.

The tax payers of the Denver Region have a right to be angry about the escalating price tag associated with the FasTrack system but at the same time its important to understand that the same factors which are driving up the cost of the system are increasing the economic value of public transportation. Denver needs the full FasTrack system now more than ever.

Cuts in the system would have adverse long-term implications: harming the region's economic competitiveness, reducing the value of the portions of the system that do get built due to a loss of interconnectivity, and slowing the region's embrace of denser, transit oriented real estate development.

Its worth noting that construction costs for many critically-needed large scale infrastructure projects grow beyond initial forecasts as was the case with DIA. However, RTD's track record in previous projects has been largely successful in keeping projects within planned time and budget commitments.

As painful as additional tax increases are, in this instance, they are the right public policy action to provide a better future for citizens of the Denver Area. It will be a tough sell to Colorado's frugal voters, but sales taxes should be increased by an additional .2 to .3 percent beyond the current 1 percent rate being used to fund FasTracks. This will support building out the full system on schedule by 2017.

Denver 2018?

Today's Denver Post outlines preliminary discussions about Denver making a bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. One of the civic characteristics I have always admired about the Denver Region is its aspirational nature. The region seems to be at its best when it is pursuing an exciting long-term goal. I think that this is an interesting and worthy endeavor loaded with economic development potential. Perhaps this could be the catalyst needed to invest in public transportation linkages between the Denver Metro Area and the mountain resorts.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Denver Ranked 11th Most Sustainable City by

Image to the left from, all rights reserved.

Sustainlane, the online guide to sustainability, just released its 2008 sustainability rankings of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. Denver was ranked 11th behind Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Baltimore.

The rankings are based on 16 factors: Air Quality, City Commuting, Energy & Climate Change, Local Food/Agriculture, Green Building, Green Economy, Housing Affordability, City Innovation, Knowledge Base, Metro Street Congestion, Metro Transit Ridership, Natural Disaster Risk, Planning/Land Use, Waste Management, Tap Water Quality and Water Supply. For more information about the ranking's methodology see here.

As you can see from the graphic above Denver's highest scores were Knowledge Base (4), Green Building (5) , Energy and Climate Change Policy (6) and Planning and Land Use (8). Its lowest scores were Housing Affordability (33), Metro Street Congestion (36), Water Supply (40), and Solid Waste Diversion (43).

It really is shocking that Denver is ranking 43rd out of 50 cities in solid waste diversion. This is clearly an area where the Denver Region could improve its performance.

Below is Sustainlane's summary of Denver:

"In 2008, Denver played host to what planners hope will go down in history as the "greenest" political convention ever. We'll wait for the verdict to come in on that one before we comment... Meantime, if the Mile High City's utilities division crunches its numbers right (and we trust that they do), then by the end of 2008, the city will have increased its renewable energy portfolio by nearly 1000 percent since 2005. With momentum like that, Denver could meet the higher end of its goal of 20 percent renewables in less than five years. Denver's on track and moving forward in most SustainLane categories, but what we're really dreaming of is an increase in its solid waste diversion rate (9.5) by 1000 percent!"

Friday, September 5, 2008

How Denver Presented During the Convention: One Attendee's Opinion

A friend and colleague of mine was in Denver for the Democratic Convention as part of a corporate sponsorship. He is a well-traveled, highly energetic and intelligent middle management marketing executive for a technology-driven Fortune 50 Company who lives and works in Manhattan. I interviewed him on his impression of Denver and the region based on his experiences at the convention.

What follows are only one person's reactions, but I found them insightful in understanding how the city presented to visitors during the convention. Much of the information below is not new or groundbreaking but it does confirm commonly held assumptions about the Denver Metro Area and help highlight regions' strengths and weaknesses. Sentences in italics below are my thoughts/extensions based on my friend's feedback.

1) Freewheeling/Bikes Belong Partnership: The free bike-sharing program during the convention helped highlight the excellent bike paths and recreational opportunities (such as kayaking in the South Platte at Confluence Park) in and around downtown Denver. This program was very successful and reinforced Denver's reputation as an outdoor friendly city that promotes healthy lifestyles. The city should explore how to make this type of bike sharing program a permanent addition to the transportation landscape.

2) Downtown Walkability: Downtown Denver is very compact and walkable. Way finding signage directed at visitors was "pretty good" and "probably better than New York" but had room for improvement.

3) Restaurants: There were lots of steakhouses and brew pubs but the food was average and it was not that easy to find outstanding places to eat. The Metro Denver Convention and Visitor's bureau should consider handing out restaurant guides at DIA when big conventions are in town.

4) Infrastructure: Although Denver was very crowded with convention related people and activities, it felt like the city had a well developed, "modern" infrastructure capable of appropriately supporting the convention. Invesco Field at Mile High and the Ellie Caulkins Opera House stood out as particularly beautiful venues.

5) Light rail: My friend stayed in Centennial in a hotel which was a 15 minute walk to a light rail stop. He found the light rail provided a good connection to downtown although was slower than driving during off peak times. It was impressive that the light rail trains stayed on schedule despite the extra large crowds, something the New York subway does not manage to do. However, the walk within Centennial from the light rail station to the hotel crossed many busy streets and did not provide a pedestrian friendly environment. Remaking the wider Denver Region into a more transit friendly, walkable, bikable place will be an enormous undertaking. FasTracks is an important piece of this effort. However, the broader changes required, to streetscapes, the built environment and socio-cultural habits will not come quickly or easily but they are critically important to the region's long-term economic health.

6) Physical Geography and Climate: Denver was flatter than expected and the sun was really hot but the mountains provided a scenic backdrop and the light at dusk was particularly beautiful.

7) Hospitality of Local Residents: Denver is a friendly city. Locals regularly asked where visitors were coming from and suggested that they come back for another visit.

8) Convention Logistics: Overall the city and region did a "great job" with security and logistics. My friend was able to bypass the long lines at Invesco for the Obama acceptance speech because he had special visitor passes which provided expedited access. On Friday morning the security screening at DIA was smooth and efficient in spite of the large crowds.

9) Overall Impression
: Denver came across as a well-developed, nice, livable, healthy city which did a very successful job of hosting the convention. The historic nature of the convention and the related activities exerted such a strong magnetic pull, that they drew much of the attention away from the city. Although he enjoyed his experiences in Denver, my Friend does not feel compelled to return as a tourist.