home guest columnist archives about us contact us
[archives] [home]

Growth, Transportation and Public Opinion

Floyd Ciruli
Pollster and Political Analyst

Coloradan’s concerns about growth are broadly felt and intensely held beliefs. Polls show that residents statewide–urban or rural–believe Colorado is growing too fast.

Despite years of statewide Smart Growth policies and billions of dollars dedicated to transportation and transit expansion, public demand persists to mitigate the negative impacts of growth. And even though voters rejected anti-growth measure Amendment 24 in November 2000 as too extreme, they consistently rank the issue at the top of the state’s agenda.

Thus, following the heighten scrutiny inspired, in part, by Amendment 24, the 2001 legislative session became ground zero for government action to slow sprawl.

Why The Issue Is So Hard To Resolve

Why the Growth Debate?
  • A decade of rapid growth
  • Most voters want action
  • Nearly all leaders want to avoid new ballot initiative

Despite frustrations with growth’s negative ramifications, Coloradans can be fickle about growth. Mainly, they understand that a high quality of life requires prosperity–the kind of prosperity that occurs in growth cycles. The 1990s were a rich decade in which many prospered. The population growth contributed to a healthy economy and helped support vibrant sports and cultural amenities. Hence the conflict–a lifestyle that requires both a good economy and a good environment.

Coloradans’ political values also can be in conflict. Respect for private property rights is ingrained. Voters resist government controls (especially state) and want to preserve their right to move to the urban fringe and recreate in the mountains, valleys and plains. When asked to rate the importance of the environment compared to other social and economic values, the environment wins handily. But when stacked against alternatives such as raising fees or taxes to help pay for growth, support becomes more tentative.

The political result is a recognition that there must be trade offs. The downsides of growth have caused most Coloradans to demand solutions to slow and manage growth, not end it and risk losing its prosperous offshoots.

A Long History of Growth Policy

Major Growth Action
HB 1041-local planning powers
1979 Human Settlement Policies
1981 Front Range Project
1992 Great Outdoors Colorado
1995 Smart Growth: Romer
1999 Smart Growth: Owens
Crafting solutions has always been challenging. When Governor Owens and the legislature made growth management the top issue for the 2001 session, they continued a history of efforts to control growth. Colorado’s boom and bust economy, along with national demographic and economic trends, have caused cycles of rapid growth and deep recession. Toward the peak of each growth cycle, new slow growth policies are enacted in Colorado.

The actions have typically been locally oriented, voluntary and incentive driven. However the huge growth of the last decade (1 million new residents or a 30% increase) simply overwhelmed existing restraints and spilled over into farms, along river bottoms and up mountain sides.

Public opinion shifts have made the state body politic vulnerable to highly restrictive local initiatives and “Not In My Backyard” type ballot proposals.

Possibly the most significant statewide program was the voter-approved Great Outdoors Colorado, which protects property rights by purchasing millions of dollars of highly valued open space, trails and outdoor recreation with lottery revenue. Ironically, today’s escalating real estate prices have limited GOCO’s impact.

Public Opinion and Growth

Public priorities ebb and flow depending on real and perceived problems. In the early 1990s, the national recession and Colorado’s history of steep downturn vaulted the economy to the top of public concern. Economic development incentives soon became government policy. However, by mid-decade a wave of violence had turned the public spotlight on crime. Tougher sentences and more prisons followed. Since 1995, growth has dominated voter priorities.

Question 2000: What in your opinion is the most important problem for the governor and legislators to deal with next year in Colorado?

Today, as recently as the November 2000 election, voters said growth is the most important problem for the governor and legislature to deal with.

In light of public attention to growth, environmental advocacy groups drafted Amendment 24, which was perceived as a strong anti-growth measure. Although the initiative was crushed by a $4 million campaign, (70 percent to 30 percent), it won over voters who made it clear that while the solution was wrong, the issue was right. Surveys conducted near election day showed that 65 percent of all voters and 61 percent of voters against the initiative wanted the governor and legislature to take action to control growth.

Transportation and Public Opinion

Traffic congestion is often cited as the worst offshoot of growth. In spite of that concern, during most of the 1990s Colorado voters were reluctant to support increased tax dollars at the state and regional level for roads and transit.

Major Transportation Action
Loss of Nobel bill funding due to recession 1987
Road construction falls behind due to budget crisis of late 1980s, erosion of fuel tax revenue and growth surge of 1990s 1990s
Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation recommends $13 billion new dollars over 20 years 1996
SB-1 legislation increases highway funding 1997
Gas tax election - Loses 1997
RTD - 0.4 cents sales tax - Loses 1997
TABOR override for roads - Loses 1998
Federal gas tax bonds - Passes 1999
RTD bonds - TABOR override - Passes 1999

Meanwhile, rapid growth swamped the aging and under-financed systems. Governor Romer and the legislature began significantly increasing funding in 1997. Voters, however, refused in two statewide elections and two regional elections to dedicate more tax dollars to roads or transit. The losses were devastating especially in light of numerous studies showing billions more were needed to expand and upgrade systems.

In 1999, voters finally approved proposals for roads and regional transit that relied on tax dollars already collected. About $2 billion was added to the system. Still, both the road and transit systems remain underfunded.

Although ridership remains modest, public opinion on transit has dramatically improved in the last few years. Leadership opinion and citizen polls show strong support for more transit funding, but there are major questions to resolve related to how much funding, how it integrates with highways and selection of priority corridors.

Two transportation-related issues that the public and opinion leaders are especially supportive of are cooperation between transit and roads and integration of transportation and land-use planning. Approaches such as the I-25 corridor improvements, which combine road improvements with a new transit line, are preferred. Each represents different cultures and constituencies, but building unified voter and leadership coalitions require support for both roads and transit.

The state’s growth debate has highlighted the growth of congestion from new shopping, strip malls and housing. Criticism surrounds major new business, housing, entertainment and shopping facilities being built without adequate planning and funding to accommodate increased traffic.

Next Steps

If the legislature and governor reach an agreement on growth management, the issue will likely recede from the public’s agenda. Migration to Colorado has slowed in recent months with the national economic downturn. However, the issue will remain a part of the political landscape and require resources and political attention for the foreseeable future.

Transportation funding and identifying new revenue sources will be a top priority the next two years as RTD is likely to request a sales tax increase and some new funding for road improvements is needed but yet to be identified.

Origin of Environmentalism
There are several theories on the origin of modern environmental sensitivities

Post-materialism With the end of economic scarcity, values such as quality of life and protection of environment became dominate
New middle class Used as vehicle to advance political status; intellectuals and dissidents not part of political establishment lead alienated groups
Social basis Younger, better educated and professional sectors most committed
Direct observation Awareness of environmental degradation
Diffusion through mass media/cultural elite Focus of attention of media reports and bias toward crisis reporting
Materialistic values Hurts jobs, increases health cost, expensive clean-up
Environmental justice Most effects poor, older neighborhoods, countries and cultures
Ciruli Associates 2001

[top] [archives] [home] [send this page to a friend]