All roads lead to Boulder

Transportation opportunities and challenges as more people commute to the County


You’ve likely gathered enough anecdotal evidence in talking to friends and colleagues to know that Boulder County is quickly becoming an unaffordable place to live; the problem is, many people still work here. 

And indeed, current and forecasted data bears out that observation. The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), a cooperative of municipalities, counties and organizations that tracks transportation data, estimates that regional trips to and from Boulder County will increase by 60% by 2040. The destinations and points of origin with the largest increase are Weld and Broomfield counties — in fact, when Boulder County tracked data on Highway 119, it found about 30% of travelers in the study period were coming in from Weld or Larimer counties. 

Makes sense: Home prices have doubled in Boulder County in the last decade. The average — about $650,000 — is approximately $200,000 more than the average for homes in Larimer and Weld counties (as well as suburban communities around Denver). 

That’s a problem, because Weld and Larimer counties are outside of the Regional Transportation District (RTD), meaning public transportation options must be generated outside of that organization. It’s also a problem because the roads that take us to and from Boulder County — Highways 119 and 7 and U.S. 36 ­— are not currently suited to handle the projected increase in traffic.

Add on top of that the disturbance of the pandemic — RTD ridership is down 60% and is facing a $140 million shortfall in its 2021 budget — plus the generally slow nature of building out transportation improvements, and the situation might seem dire. 

Or, it can be an opportunity to make bold changes.

“COVID affected everything, but what we’re really focused on now is how do we come back,” says Boulder County Deputy Director of Transportation Planning Kathleen Bracke. “How does transportation serve a critical support function to help our communities come back and create access to education again, access to jobs, access to the outdoors? We really need to be upping our services again, because people are coming back.”

One factor of increasing economic mobility in Boulder County is increasing mobility itself. Here’s how local agencies, organizations and governments are planning to do that, in spite of all the challenges, and given the need to move quickly.

John R. Ford

The big picture

In 2020, Boulder County finalized a transportation master plan that outlined more than $2 billion worth of projects (a hefty portion of that is implementation of a regional rail service — more on that later) that would improve mobility to and from Boulder County. The state legislature also recently passed a $5 billion transportation infrastructure package, with funds to be distributed throughout the state.

While these plans and funding packages will likely impact hundreds of corridors, in Boulder County there are three important travelways that have the biggest impact — Highway 119 from Longmont to Boulder; Highway 7 from Boulder to Lafayette; and U.S. 36 from Boulder to Broomfield and beyond. 

Improving the transportation options on those corridors is vital to making sure people can get from their homes to their places of work (and places for recreation, entertainment, health care and more). 

“Those are critical travel corridors for commuters in and out of Boulder,” says Boulder Chamber of Commerce President John Tayer. “We need to make sure we’re driving resources into the those corridors that support a full range of options, from automobiles to efficient modes of transport.”

But change comes slowly — the addition of paid express lanes on U.S. 36 took about 20 years to implement, for example. 

“Our region is growing in population and employment. We can’t sit on our hands and wait. We have to plan for interim solutions to move people,” says Audrey DeBarros, executive director of Louisville-based Commuting Solutions, a nonprofit that works to improve transportation options in the region. DeBarros says Highway 119 is a top priority for local transportation improvements.

Work there is commencing with studies and plans for multi-modal paths (bike and bus lanes), but much of the funding is yet to be secured. For what it’s worth, RTD Communications Director Marta Sipeki says folks should expect a similar paid HOV lane on 119 when all is said and done.

While 36 has been improved (though weekday-morning commuters trying to get into Boulder may contest just how improved it is), the “sleeping giant,” DeBarros says, is U.S. 287, which runs from Broomfield through Longmont to Fort Collins. 

One thing that could greatly improve transportation on all these corridors is the implementation of rail. Boulder County residents have been paying for such a service for years now — without anything to show for it — but there is now reason for optimism: The state legislature recently passed a bill that creates the Front Range Passenger Rail District, which will help oversee the creation of a rail line, and ask taxpayers to fund it. The hitch: a line into Boulder and up to Longmont is only one of several options; that is, after all the broken promises, there still could be a rail line north of the Denver area, it might just go to Firestone.

Rail would be a marked improvement in terms of service options, but that’s a costly, years-away endeavor. So when looking for immediate improvements to public transportation service, look first to RTD.

Looking ahead

As mentioned, RTD is down riders, down revenue and down service lines. RTD received three infusions of stimulus money from the federal support packages of the last year-plus: $232 million, which it spent in 2020; $203.4 million in January 2021, which it used to bring back operators it was forced to lay off due to budgetary constraints, Sipeki from the agency says; and $338.4 million, which it can spend until 2024. That’s, of course, a ton of money, but it all came with the stipulation that it could only be spent on COVID impacts, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and operations costs — notably, not capital improvements.

For those capital improvements, RTD is running a Reimagine program, which will solicit input from communities and stakeholders on how best to improve service in relevant areas. Sipeki says RTD is also undergoing a fare study and equity analysis, which will help guide how much services will cost for people in communities that rely on public transportation the most. (Right now, it costs $5.25 to get from Denver to Boulder and vice versa; a regional day pass or trip to the airport is $10.50.) RTD has also lowered the requirements for neighborhoods to enter into the EcoPass program, which will, in theory, give more people access to public transportation.

But one thing is clear: no one agency can provide enough service to meet the growing and evolving needs of Boulder County commuters. So, the creation of lines like the Flex bus — which costs $1.25 to ride, and runs between Fort Collins and Boulder (with stops along the way) — is a perfect example of collaboration for agencies and governments that have a need. Funding is made possible through partnerships between the cities along the route. 

Too, there’s a chance to think even smaller when it comes to improving mobility. Tayer says for those looking to get to work, improving options for the first and last mile could make a big difference.

“From the operations perspective, we are working collaboratively with our regional partners to develop both the regional transit services as well as the first- and final-mile programs that get folks from regional bus, let’s say, to their place of work,” Tayer says. “Examples of that are everything from micromobility vehicles or units like electric scooters, to shuttle buses that would meet the workforce at the connection with their regional transit ride to then swiftly take them to their place of work. And [those options are] critical to making public transit function as a viable alternative to the single-occupant vehicle.”

Tayer also supports the idea of 15-minute neighborhoods — expanding on the idea of live-work developments — where people can get groceries, recreate, go to school and entertain themselves without requiring automobiles. East Boulder can be a case study for the creation of such a neighborhood.

“One of the most significant [opportunities] is what we’re looking at for the future planning of East Boulder and the opportunity to build a cozy environment out there that is accommodating to a diversity of our workforce, but also meets a lot of the current neighborhood interests in retail,” Tayer says. “When you think about the commercial tenants out there, many of them want that same kind of atmosphere, to not only accommodate their workforce for living but also so folks don’t have to drive 3 miles to get lunch. That’s a beautiful example of the kinds of more compact, more environmentally efficient and affordable live-work environments.”

Developing 15-minute neighborhoods jives with the times, too — many workers were able to stay home (and many still can) because of the pandemic. People can access almost everything remotely more easily now: health care, shopping, work, entertainment (if they’re not really sick of it by now). Though certainly in-person work has returned and will continue to do so, Bracke sees it as a positive output from the pandemic. 

“The silver lining is workplaces were able to embrace online work and working remotely and remote education and online health care and all kinds of different things we learned to do this last year,” she says. “I hope we don’t lose that.” 

This is part of a series on affordability funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.

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