Turnpike Spawns Growth, Taxes, Pollution

Albert A. Bartlett

This is an enlarged version of the guest editorial in the Boulder Planet (Boulder, Colorado) of May 26, 1999, Pg. 16.

The Boulder Planet's excellent special report (May 19,1999) on US highway 36 (The Denver-Boulder Turnpike) began with a misleading headline which said that the "Turnpike Faces an Uncertain Future." The enormous success of the extraordinary ongoing efforts to promote, sell and develop the Colorado Front Range area guarantees that there is no uncertainty about the future of traffic on the Turnpike! Traffic will get worse! The transportation experts consulted by your reporter were only partially correct when they said "Traffic on the Turnpike is going to get worse - maybe a lot worse - before it gets better." The experts were wrong in imagining that, at sometime in the future, traffic would get better. It is fiscally and physically impossible to add more lanes fast enough to overcome the effects of the local population growth that is causing the current increases in congestion. A fundamental law of building urban highways is, "You don't add extra lanes to urban highways to alleviate traffic jams, you add them to enlarge traffic jams."

Some people still maintain that the answer to the problem of congestion on the Turnpike is to add more lanes to the four present lanes (two each way). But let's do some ballpark arithmetic on the cost of adding lanes to the Turnpike. Some years ago State Highway people told me it would cost between $5 million and $8 million a lane-mile to add lanes to the Turnpike. An added lane each way would total about 50 lane-miles, and at the lower figure this would cost about $250 million. If everything is operating perfectly I believe the maximum number of vehicles that can go by on one lane is 2000 cars an hour. That's one car every 1.8 seconds. If the rush hour is 2.5 hours in the morning and 2.5 in the evening, then an added lane each way gives the total added capacity of 10,000 rush hour car round trips each day. For this, the public would pay $250 million. If you do the long division I believe you will see that for these added lanes, the taxpayers would be paying about $25,000 in construction costs for each added vehicle accomodated in the rush hours. This is approximately the retail cost of the extra accomodated vehicle! Is this the best way to spend tax dollars?

In his famous essay, the Tragedy of the Commons, the biologist Garrett Hardin points out how the benefits of growth accrue to a few, while the costs of growth have to be paid by all. The Turnpike is a wonderful demonstration of the truth of this essay. The benefits of added lanes would accrue to the developers and investors and their politicians who are so eager to see the Turnpike enlarged, while the taxpayers would be left to pay the construction and maintenance costs.

Some years ago there was a hearing in Broomfield on the subject of adding a new interchange to serve the Interlocken Business Park and the big manufacturer, Storage Tech. The meeting opened by having a traffic engineer make a report of his detailed studies of the growth of traffic at several intersections around Broomfield. It does not take much study to realize that, if traffic continues to grow, all intersections in the area will soon be at capacity and jammed. This engineer presented his analysis of the obvious, from which he drew the desired conclusion: a new interchange had to be built. In the question period that followed, I said that there were three questions which seemed to me to be important, but which the engineer had not addressed.

1) What is the long-term future of petroleum as a fuel for motor vehicles?

2) The proposed new Broomfield interchange will pour lots of new traffic on the Turnpike. What will all of this added traffic do to the congestion that was already being experienced on the Turnpike?

3) What did you learn in school? Did you learn that it makes sense to destroy the "limited-access" feature of a limited-access highway?

The presiding officer immediately said, "Next question Please."

The point about limited access was recognized in the Planet's thoughtful story. "As the [Turnpike] corridor has developed it has spawned its own local traffic, contributing to Turnpike congestion... Now it serves multiple destinations. Most of the trips [on the Turnpike] are short ones between interchanges," according to a planner for the Regional Transportation District (RTD).

The Turnpike was planned and built as a limited-access highway, with access only at Baseline Road in Boulder, at the mid-point in Broomfield, and at Federal Boulevard in Denver. It was designed to serve traffic between Denver, Broomfield, and Boulder. But now about five more interchanges have been added, and these added interchanges violate the original intent of the Turnpike. Instead of being preserved as a useful limited-access highway, the Turnpike has been transformed into a crowded heavy-duty city street. The traffic congestion that is the result of this transformation is completely predictable. But we should note that, as proponents of each new added interchange made their cases, the proponents and their hired experts all avoided saying anything about the long-term implications of destroying the limited-access feature that made the Turnpike so useful in its early decades.

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce and the Boulder City Council were instrumental in the initial effort to build the Turnpike. They wanted a limited-access toll road that would serve the people of Boulder, giving us a quick reliable route to Denver. After the Turnpike was paid for, the tolls were removed and the pressure began to build to put new interchanges along the Turnpike. I remember writing to both the Chamber and the Council urging them serve the people of Boulder by opposing new interchanges on the Turnpike because the new traffic generated by the new interchanges would crowd Boulder people off of the Turnpike that they had paid for with their tolls. There was no response.

I attended public meetings in Broomfield and Westminster, asking that two of the proposed new interchanges not be made, and I was laughed out of the halls. After the hearing in Westminster, a high official of Westminster, who had spoken strongly in favor of the proposed Sheridan Interchange, was talking to a group in the lobby outside the hearing room, and, with considerable enthusiasm he said, "With this new interchange, Westminster could grow from its present population of xxx (a modest number) to XXX (an enormous number) in ten years." Then he paused for a moment and added, "And Westminster would probably not be such a nice place when it got that big."

Your story said it very nicely, "the Pike has become a victim of its own success." This is a marvelous example of Eric Sevareid's Law:

"The chief cause of problems is solutions."

The Turnpike was a solution to the problem of getting conveniently between Boulder and Denver. That solution has now caused all of the problems which your story so carefully covered.

The closing quote in the story in the Planet was interesting. "Try to imagine life without the Turnpike." As the Planet's story made clear, the Turnpike spawned all the growth that clogs it today. From the information given in the Planet's story it is clear that without the Turnpike, the growth would not be as overwhelming as it is today, taxes would be lower, the schools would be less crowded, and the air would be cleaner, and the old zig-zag two-lane road from Boulder to Denver would be congested with two lanes of traffic. Now the Turnpike is congested with four lanes of traffic. Add two more lanes, and the Turnpike will be congested with six lanes of traffic. Add ten more lanes....

We are fortunate that our representative on the Regional Transportation District Board of Directors, Judge Richard McLean, understands the problem, probably better than many of the "planners" who were reported by the Planet to have been "taken by surprise" by the rapid growth that is reducing the utility of the Turnpike.

Probably the best way to slow the increase in congestion on the Turnpike is to develop passenger rail commuter service on the existing system of heavy-railroads from Fort Collins, through Loveland, Longmont, Niwot, Boulder, Broomfield and Denver. The Boulder County Commissioners set up a Task Force a dozen years ago to study this. The Task Force presented a plan that envisaged a network of commuter trains operating on existing rails between Denver and many Front Range cities and the new Denver International Airport (DIA). The Mayor of Denver, who later became Secretary of Transportation, showed no interest in developing rail transportation to bring large numbers of commuters and customers from the suburbs and DIA into the heart of Denver. He was a highway man. It is time to get serious and to develop plans to implement the one transportation option that makes sense in the Front Range area of Colorado; heavy rail in which commuter passenger trains operate regularly and reliably on the existing network railroads that converge on Denver. Other American cities are doing it. If we hurry, we can be followers. The following op-ed piece was published in the Denver Post Sunday August 1, 1999.


The numbers in the Denver Post's front page story "More Lanes, More Traffic" ( June 28, 1999) raise three serious questions.

1) The story indicated that the present six-lane road ( I-25 ) can carry 256,000 vehicles a day "if it is not widened." Is this reasonable?

Let's do some arithmetic. This is approximately 43,000 cars per lane each day, or an average of about 1780 cars per lane for each of the 24 hours in a day. This is about one car every 2 seconds in each of six lanes. One can imagine cars at this density during the rush hours, but it is hard to imagine this density 24 hours a day. Have I made a mistake or are the numbers wrong in the story?

2) What is the public cost of the widening of I-25 per car accomodated and per person transported?

The Post story said that widening would cost $650 million and "would bring 50,000 more cars a day onto that highway by 2020 ." As far as I can tell, the 50,000 additional cars would consist of 25,000 cars traveling to work in the morning and then returning home in the evening, so that each commuting car is counted twice each day. If there are an average of 1.2 people per car, the added 25,000 cars that are accomodated by the lanes added to I-25 will get 30,000 additional people in to work in the morning and home in the evening. To do this, it is proposed to spend $650 million of public money. This is $26,000 for each commuting vehicle or about $22,000 for each commuting person. This is an enormous public subsidy for private personal transportation! This is just the initial capital cost: maintenance is extra.

While the state and the federal government [i.e.,taxpayers] will pay the cost of the added lanes on I-25, the local communities [i.e., taxpayers] will have to pay for widening of local streets to get these extra cars onto the new lanes on I-25 and then pay for widening streets to get them off the new lanes. At the destinations one needs 25,000 new parking spaces to accomodate all of these additional cars. These extra costs could easily double the $26,000 cost per car of the added lanes, raising the total cost of the public subsidy to $50,000 or more per car accomodated on the lanes that are proposed to be added on I-25 . This should be of great interest to fiscal conservatives, because we are talking about big money!

3) The Post's story told of debate over the projections for the future growth of traffic on I-25. Are the projected figures reasonable?

The quoted increase from 256,000 to 306,000 vehicles per day by 2020 after the six lanes are increased to eight, corresponds to an annual average growth rate of only 0.85 % . The total expected growth of the commuting traffic is certainly greater than this. A front page story in the Post (June 30) gave figures from which one can calculate that, in the last eight years, the average annual population growth rate of Parker is about 12.9 % and of Castle Rock is about 6.6 % . The following table shows how a traffic load of 256,000 cars a day in 1999 will grow in the years up to 2020 for 1 % , 5 %, and 10 % annual growth rates.

1999 2010 2020

1 % 256,000 286,000 316,000

5 % 256,000 444,000 732,000

10 % 256,000 769,000 2,091,000

Apparently the two lanes added to I-25 will take 50,000 daily car trips out of the surrounding neighborhoods and this will fill the enlarged I-25 to capacity, but will it relieve the congestion on I-25? One planner made the understatement, "[Even with the new construction] Congestion [on I-25] isn't going to improve dramatically." If we take 50,000 daily car trips out of the surrounding neighborhoods and put these cars on the enlarged I-25 , how long will it take for population growth to generate 50,000 new daily car trips which then will have to go back into the surrounding neighborhoods, leaving the neighborhoods no better off than they are today? The total daily car trips could grow from 306,000 to 356,000 in 15 years if the annual growth rate of cars is 1 % , 3 years for 5 % , and 1.5 years for a growth rate of 10 % . It was said that the added lanes will not reduce congestion on I-25 . With continued population growth, the added lanes will not reduce the burdens the surrounding neighborhoods suffer because they have to accomodate the spillover traffic from I-25. So where's the gain?

As quoted in the Post's story, Representative Todd Saliman understands the problem. He observed that the projected traffic numbers are probably low. He said, "I know that people wish we could just add a few lanes and our problems would be solved forever... But that's just not how it works."

The general conclusion is, that as long as population growth continues in the Metro Denver area, adding more lanes on major thoroughfares will not to alleviate traffic jams, it will only enlarge the traffic jams.

Unless I have made a dumb mistake in my figures, I think the numbers given in the story in the Post are not reasonable. This letter to the Editor was published in the Colorado Daily on August 25, 1999. Boulder, Colorado, 80306


Thanks for your interesting story (August 20, 1999) on the Federal plan that proposes to pave the gravel road over Guanella Pass. The story quoted the Feds as claiming that the road "needs to be 'improved' in order to accomodate growing traffic volumes." The story notes that the proposed improvements in the road are "much to the displeasure of many area residents," and it quotes one affected resident as saying:

"The highway administration is completely ignoring the will of the public."

"It appears as if they're going to pave us over like we're not even there."

"Our No.1 fear is that traffic is going to increase by an incredible amount."

The motivation for the improvement seems to be the opportunity to develop the "private property along the pass which would certainly be a lot easier to develop if the road was paved and widened."

Bravo to Rep. Mark Udall for his actions to try to give the local people a voice in the determination of their future and to slow or stop this paving. The story said that Rep. Udall wrote to the Federal agency that is proposing the paving, saying: "I find it very disturbing that any federal agency sees fit to ignore the specific and very reasonable pleas of citizens..."

This road-paving scenario has happened before, and it will happen again. About 40 years ago the U.S. Forest Service wanted to pave the narrow gravel road from Ward to Brainard Lake because "the recreational area around the Lake was crowded on Labor Day." Some members of the Boulder Group of the Colorado Mountain Club opposed the paving, noting that if the Forest Service paved the road, this recreational area would be crowded every summer day. So the Forest Service paved the road, and the area became crowded throughout the summer. At one point the crowding was so severe that the Forest Service put up a check station to turn back traffic when the area around the Lake was filled to capacity with vehicles.

This experience is yet another illustration of the fundamental law of building highways, that applies to Interstate Highways as well as to gravel roads in the mountains. Each new highway and each improvement in an existing highway generates enough new traffic to fill the new or improved highway to capacity. It is also a fact that a gravel road is an inoffensive filter. Some people refuse to drive on gravel roads, but they are not offended by their presence. People are offended if you pave the road and then have to put up a check station to control the wholly predictable increase in traffic.

What we have here is a small-scale replay of the major theme in the history of North America. The European conquest of North America and the consequent elimination of the Native Americans was initiated by European business interests that received royal governmental charters and ecclesiastical blessings for their enterprises. The conquest was continued by American interests with the blessings of the leaders of our society and with the strong military and financial support of our Federal government. The elimination of the Native Americans was achieved wholly in accord with the contemporary religious, moral, ethical, social, and business standards of the times. The Natives were told that the imposition on them of the European way of life would be a big "improvement." The Natives could either accept the new way of life of the conquerors, they could pick up their lives and move elsewhere, or they could choose between being killed or being institutionalized on reservations.

At the most fundamental level, the sustainable society of the Native Americans was replaced by the unsustainable European society.

The violent parts of the conquest were achieved through the use of firearms. But more important, the "peaceful" parts of the conquest were achieved by the building of roads, canals, and railroads across the "untamed" continent. These transportation arteries and the resulting settlement had enormous environmental impact. They destroyed the ecological support system of the Native Americans, and hence were of inestimable importance in the overall plan of conquest. A sustainable society (Native Americans) cannot co-exist with an unsustainable society.

This drama of conquest is being played out today in hundreds of communities from coast to coast all over America. The players have changed, but the conquest proceeds in the same way. The conquests of today are initiated by Americans whose wealth and / political positions provide royal connections and charters from the Federal Government. When politicians initiate these conquests, it is often because they have no understanding of the fundamental laws of highways, cited above. The conquests are said to be in response to the will of the people, which means the will of the bureaucrats who claim to be representing the will of people elsewhere. This means that people elsewhere have decreed that the road building agencies of the Federal and other governmental agencies must destroy the way of life of today's "Natives" for the greater good of the larger society. The "Natives" of today are ordinary Americans who have built small comfortable self-supporting mountain communities where they wish to live in peace. They don't bother others, and they don't wish to be bothered by others. Today's conquests are conducted wholly in accord with the legal, business, moral, ethical, etc. standards of today, so firearms are not needed: legal authorizations and bulldozers will do.

The impending conquest of Guanella Pass is but a small example of this contemporary mode of conquest.

Let's see how these conquests proceed. The rich and powerful go to the Feds for royal charters to "tame" (plunder) any remaining "undeveloped" area that offers the opportunity of profit. The rich and powerful don't wish to spend their own money improving the roads, so central to their conquest is the requirement that the Feds pay for the construction of improved highway access. This improved roads are "justified" by claiming the need for improved safety and convenience, not of the Natives, but of those who, it is expected, will replace the Natives. Environmental impact statements can be counted on to support the planned destruction by minimizing the anticipated "impact" of each and every new construction. Just as was the case a century or two ago, the Natives oppose the building of the roads. But, just like the case with the Native Americans, today's Natives can move on and allow their lands to be plundered, or they can lie down in front of the bulldozers and be killed. Their only hope in their wish to preserve their way of life from exploitation by others is for a courageous Congressman to stand up for them and help them.

With continued population growth, we know with absolute certainty that paving the road over Guanella Pass will bring enormous increases in traffic to this quiet mountain region. The needs of this new traffic will have to be met by urbanization, which calls for the construction of filling stations, stores, homes, schools, and resort hotels, along with water systems, sewer systems, police and fire protection, etc. While the conquest is taking place, the Natives will have to endure the pollution and congestion that will follow the unwanted urbanization.

The Natives who chose to stay will have to pay greatly increased taxes to provide for all of these costly amenities of the unwanted urbanization that is forced on them by the conquerors. Indeed, the tax system of the conquerors is a major tool of conquest. Influential developers who have instigated the highway building will build a few expensive structures in the existing Native community. These will increase the value, of all of the surrounding properties. Assessors, obedient to the law, will therefore have to increase the taxable valuation of the surrounding properties. This increases the taxes the Natives have to pay, so those Natives on fixed or limited incomes will ultimately find they can no longer afford to live in their family homes and they will have to sell out and move on. The ultimate tax the remaining Natives will have to pay will be an open space tax to allow the new urban community to purchase and preserve a small portion of the open space that the Natives had enjoyed all along.

After all, it's a free country and conquests such as this are an essential part of the "healthy economy." Like the Native Americans before them, many of today's Natives will choose to abandon their mountain community and accept dispersion to places as yet untamed by the developers, while the developers can build their luxurious resorts and palatial houses on the site of the former community.

A favorite theme of the conquerors is that they will be creating new jobs. This overlooks the fact that the Natives saw no need for new jobs. What the conquerors mean when they talk about new jobs is that the Natives, now crowded into reservations at new sites dozens of miles away will be offered the opportunity to commute long distances to minimum-wage service jobs such as tending the grounds, operating the valet parking, cleaning toilets and making beds for the conquerors.

All of this is done in full accord with contemporary legal, business, ethical, ecclesiastical, and societal standards. These standards don't allow individuals or small communities of individuals to "stand in the way of progress." It is totally legal for conquerors to come in, have the government pay for "improvement" of the roads and then for the conquerors to use their big financial resources to buy up land, displace the Natives and to destroy their small tight-knit communities. Invariably the conquerers will express surprise that the Natives don't appreciate all that the conquerors are doing for them.

In this instance there is hope. Representative Udall has the background necessary to understand the plight of the Natives and the nature of the conquest that they are facing. He has the will, and he may have the power to stop this conquest.

In the meantime, we need to look at our system and at our understanding of the meaning of "progress." Do native communities have the right to be left alone? Do Natives have the right to live their lives in peace, and to escape the exploitation of the conquerors who currently have the will and the power to destroy everything that stands in their path? All of this destruction may be legal, it may have the blessings of many in high places, but is it right for the wealthy to destroy the ways of life of the unwealthy?

Today's engine of conquest is the bulldozer. Just as it has been in the past, roadbuilding is the principal tool of conquest.

Thanks again for your story. It's the type of story one rarely finds in the mainline media, which are so often allied with the conquerors rather than with the Natives.