Growth, Transportation and Public Opinion
Coloradans concerns about growth are broadly felt and intensely held beliefs. Polls show that residents statewideurban or ruralbelieve 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 states 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
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
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, todays escalating real estate prices have limited GOCOs impact.
Public Opinion and Growth
Public priorities ebb and flow depending on real and perceived problems. In the early 1990s, the national recession and Colorados 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.
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 states 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.
If the legislature and governor reach an agreement on growth management, the issue will likely recede from the publics 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.