This is an enlarged version of the guest editorial in the Boulder Planet
(Boulder, Colorado) of May 26, 1999, Pg. 16.
TURNPIKE SPAWNS GROWTH, TAXES, POLLUTION
Albert A. Bartlett
The Boulder Planets 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
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
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.
Albert A. Bartlett; Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Colorado, Boulder, 80309-0390; (303) 492 7016
Department Office: (303) 492 6952: FAX (303) 492 3352