Valley faces ‘travel demand challenge’ | PostIndependent.com

Valley faces ‘travel demand challenge’

Shailen Bhatt

The Roaring Fork Valley is in a unique position to respond to the transportation needs of a growing population, and the best may be yet to come, according to noted transportation planner Jim Charlier.

Already, the region is served by the first rural bus rapid transit system in the country, ridership is up and there's a good network of trails, Charlier observed before a gathering of local elected officials, business leaders and transportation officials at the Mobility, Fuels and Funding Forum held Friday at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs.

Though the area population is projected to increase over the next 20 years by as much as 55 percent, statistics already are showing that traffic, as measured by vehicle miles traveled, is not increasing at the same rate as the population, Charlier said.

In fact, the per-capita vehicle miles traveled decreased 8 percent in Colorado in recent years, he said.

"You do have a travel demand challenge in this valley that you're going to have to respond to," the founder of the Boulder-based Charlier Associates said.

"I always use the Roaring Fork Valley as example for how to meet transportation needs in a growing area," Charlier said. "You have been very successful, but you can't sit back … you have to keep at it."

Charlier was the featured speaker at the mobility forum, hosted by Clean Energy Economy for the Region, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association.

The day featured panel discussions regarding transportation funding challenges in Colorado, opportunities around the Grand Avenue bridge project, potential regional solutions, alternative fuels and a keynote address by Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shailen Bhatt.

Colorado has some daunting challenges on the transportation front in terms of its highway infrastructure, Bhatt said.

Especially along the Front Range and on the Interstate 70 corridor, traffic is increasing with population and traffic delays in urban centers and other congested areas will likely increase by two or three times, he said.

"I'm here to tell you it is going to get much, much worse," Bhatt said.

It's been a mixed bag of gains and losses since he took the job a year ago, he said.

Colorado now ranks 32nd nationally for its pavement condition, an improvement from 37th in 2014. Colorado was ranked 11th for the condition of its bridges, but is now 15th.

That's changing with the influx of FASTER funds to repair and replace crumbling bridges through the Colorado Bridge Enterprise program, Bhatt said, including the $125.6 million Grand Avenue bridge replacement in Glenwood Springs.

"My apologies for the disruption that will cause," he said. "But this is an important bridge for us."

Adequate funding will continue to be a challenge in addressing Colorado's transportation needs, Bhatt also said.

And, at some point, he said the state is going to have to seriously address the question whether to increase its gasoline tax, as neighboring states including Utah, Wyoming and Idaho have done.

"It will be politically tough, but I think it's the right thing to do and we should do it," he said.

As it stands, 64 percent of the state's highway funding comes from the federal government, compared with 38 percent in Utah, Bhatt noted.

The latest innovations in moving people around, including car sharing and Internet-based ride-hailing services such as Uber, are making their way to Colorado and will continue to expand, Bhatt and Charlier both said.

"It will come, it's just a matter of scale before that happens, but Uber could actually be a big deal here in Glenwood," Charlier said. "I don't know what it will look like here, but I do know it will happen."

Especially as more of the Millennial generation moves into places like Glenwood Springs and Rifle, demand will focus on compact communities, urban lifestyle and walkable neighborhoods with connections to transit and less need for personal vehicles, he predicted.

"We're well past the time where we build four-lane roads out into the country to a new industrial park where we hope someone will locate their business and create jobs," Charlier said.

While still only 30 percent of the people who work in Aspen live in Aspen, due to the cost of housing, more people are finding work in the communities where they live, he also pointed out.

A recent study found that 68 percent of the people who live in Glenwood Springs also work here. Same with Rifle, where 63 percent of the residents manage to work in Rifle, meaning the commuter lifestyle is starting to diminish.

On the safety front, there is a need to adapt street designs in urban areas to better accommodate pedestrians and bicycles, Charlier said.

Bhatt also spoke to the newer technology that is coming to Colorado in the way of smart cars with ever-more-advanced safety systems such as automatic braking.

One of the state's goals is to be "at the top of the list" when it comes to deploying new technology in transportation safety and systems, he said.

Any new lanes that are added to the state's highway system in the near future are likely to come with a price to the user, including more toll lanes, such as the new mountain tollway, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, Bhatt said.