How will we get around Boulder County in the future?


It’s 2040. You take the light rail from Longmont to Boulder Junction. Maybe you hop on a shuttle to work downtown. Or maybe you ride on the multi-use path and buffered bike lane to the Space Force recruitment center, inspired by President Eric Trump’s fireside chat the night before. (In 2040, all presidential addresses are technically next to a fire. There’s fire everywhere.)

Or maybe the changes aren’t so monumental. Maybe you drive — in a car you own and still operate — from Weld County and take an overpass at IBM instead of waiting at the light for 20 minutes. Maybe you just take a good old-fashioned bus from Lafayette to Longmont, and it’s free, and the ride takes less than 10 minutes.

Either way, planning today for the transportation needs of tomorrow is not easy: You have to plan projects without knowing exactly how or if they’ll be funded. You have to coordinate with myriad agencies at the local, state and federal levels. And you have to account for exponential technological, societal and environmental changes.

“What’s fascinating about transportation is there’s what we’re working with today and then there’s the forecasting of how are we going to travel in the future,” says Kathleen Bracke, Boulder County deputy director of transportation planning. “It seems that pace of change is accelerating. And so I don’t know what the technology will be. I don’t have that crystal ball.” 

But the County does have a plan, which it approved last month, for how to accommodate the extra 260,000 trips people will take through Boulder County by 2040. And there’s a price tag for implementing that plan: $2.46 billion, of which about 93% is unfunded at the moment.

So: What projects will get priority? From where will the funding come? And when can Boulder County residents and visitors expect improvements to happen?

What needs to be improved?

To address the sizeable increase in people traveling to, through and from Boulder County by 2040, County planners (in conjunction with local and state agencies) recognized a need to create a system that offers bus, rail, car, bike and pedestrian options. Applying that “multi-modal” system to five main corridors in Boulder County — east/west, north/south, U.S. 36, Highway 119 and the mountains — would provide the biggest bang for the buck (or, in this case, 2.5 billion bucks). Data that anticipated job and population growth around the region — for instance, development in south and west Longmont — was used to pinpoint and forecast areas of need. 

There is local precedent for planning and executing some of these big projects. The express lanes and expanded service on U.S. 36, for instance, took 20 years of planning, fundraising and coordinating with multiple levels of government, says City of Boulder Senior Transportation Planner Randall K. Rutsch. But the result of that expedited bus service between Denver to Boulder consolidates travelers, which will be key to moving large numbers of people through the county in the future.

“When you provide service that is faster than driving during the peak hours and is more reliable than driving because it has its own lane, you see a significant increase in ridership,” Rutsch says.

That U.S. 36 expansion is being used as a de facto model for improvements to Diagonal Highway/119 between Boulder and Longmont. Bracke says the County has been working with Boulder, Longmont, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Regional Transportation District (RTD) to create and fund express lanes, bus rapid transit in those lanes and a commuter bikeway. 

Combined, the organizing agencies have raised about $93 million for the project. Good, but not enough to cover the project’s $250 million tab.

“No one agency or one community is going to come up with 100% of the money to make that happen, and we also recognize that it’s a long haul, “ Bracke says. “You have to get momentum going on projects, because they’re big and they’re complicated and they’re hard and they’re expensive. But if we can get the momentum going, it helps bring more resources.”

How are we going to pay for this?

Take the proposed Northwest Rail (see below) and its $1.6 billion, currently unfunded price tag out of the equation, and you’re left with a $540 million deficit to accomplish the key regional transportation upgrades the County has outlined. That’s on top of $100 million needed to implement just the City of Boulder’s own transportation plan, and the money needed to fund Louisville’s and Longmont’s plans for more localized improvements. 

And funding for all those capitol projects are likely only to come after the millions of dollars of maintenance to the County’s roads, bridges and paths are made. Each city has maintenance projects to fund too, about $22 million in the City of Boulder, for instance. 

Funding “is a hide-and-seek game,” Rutsch says. Cost sharing has proven fruitful when agencies are aligned on a project — U.S. 36, as mentioned, but also the Hop, which provides bus service between the 29th Street Mall, CU and downtown Boulder. The City of Boulder, CU and RTD share the costs, and Via Mobility Services runs it. Another example is the Flex Express bus that runs between Fort Collins and Boulder and is funded by the cities (and Boulder County) it serves.

With RTD cutting services, those models are likely the future for transportation. The City of Boulder’s recent transportation plan explicitly claimed RTD is “unable to provide the level of service needed to meet our goals.”

“So over time, we need to negotiate and take over service from RTD. There is lots of negotiation and bridges that would need to be crossed to do that,” Rutsch says, but adds that other communities have taken similar steps to municipalize public transportation.

Taking in the public transportation system might also allow local governments to offer fare-free travel, similar to what an EcoPass provides.

“Long-term survey data shows if you have an EcoPass in your pocket, you’re five, six times more likely to ride the bus than somebody who doesn’t,” Rutsch says.

That would mean far fewer cars on the road in the future. But Rutsch says every time the City and County have gone to RTD with proposals to implement a community-wide EcoPass, they haven’t been able to reach a deal — yet another reason communities are looking outside the agency (which did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story) for its transit future.

One final component in the funding discussion is the likely increase in taxes. Revenue typically spent on transportation projects garnered from a gas tax has dwindled in recent years as cars have become more fuel-efficient. And so there has been thought given to raising sales tax, but also charging drivers based on how much they travel and businesses on how much travel they spur.

Rutsch says the City of Boulder might look at enacting a transportation utility fee, like Denver has done, that taxes businesses based on how much traffic they generate. For instance, a restaurant would be taxed per square foot at a tax rate that’s based on the average number of people that visit similar businesses.

Bracke also suggests that mileage fees may be used to generate revenue. Technology already exists to track cars coming in and out of Boulder County (cell phone pings are used to determine how many trips were coming in and out of the county and from where). Automatically charging drivers per trip would be ideal, Bracke says, even if it does sound a little 1984.

“A lot of the feedback we hear from people is, ‘Well, I don’t want you to track my vehicle,’ but if you have a phone, that’s already happening,” she says.

Rutsch agrees: “A lot of people that are in the field would say ultimately that’s where we will go.”

Even if it’s not your cell phone being tracked, your new car will likely be able to be tracked automatically.

How long do we have?

The cost to complete these local and county-wide projects is likely to increase. Since 2012, the cost of construction in Colroado has gone up 72%, while the County’s transportation revenue has increased only 53%. In Boulder, a project that cost $10 million in 2012 would cost $14.5 million today.

“That’s why we look at how can we accelerate implementation of these things,” Bracke says. “The more funding we can find sooner the better because we can implement these at a lower cost than what they might be in five or 10 years.”

You have likely experienced an increase in traffic driving throughout Boulder County in the last five years. Rutsch says anecdotal evidence bears that out. When the City asked business owners in 2014 if travel and transportation was impacting their ability to hire and retain employees, by and large they said no. When they were asked last year, “We heard very strongly that they are having an issue.”

Rutsch says the local transportation system “may have reached a breaking point,” and that businesses may now be willing to help fund projects like a takeover of the bus service, which would help them retain and accommodate employees.

The impacts of inaction could spread even farther, Bracke says: Boulder County and its cities have climate and cultural goals and fixing the transportation system is a critical part of meeting so many of them.

“We can’t just keep chipping away at this for the next 20, 30, 40 years,” Bracke says. “We need to figure out how to accelerate the pace of progress. Things need to happen sooner because we’re running out of time. And we know we have climate goals, we have air-quality goals, affordable-living goals… and we’re not going to get there if we don’t keep moving.”

So when will these projects be complete, if at all? The untidy answer: Whenever there’s funding. And a collective desire across multiple government agencies and taxpayers to get it done. 

“You have to build local support,” Rutsch says. “You have to get agreement. You have to ask and be persistent and be united.” 

The U.S. 36 expansion, remember, took 20 years — the same timeframe we’re talking about for dozens of these projects. And in the grand scheme of things, adding an HOV lane did not fundamentally change our lives.

Time will only tell how exactly we’ll get around Boulder County in the future. It helps to have a plan, though.  

What about the train?

Some of it’s myth and some of it’s true,” Bracke says of the series of events that led to Boulder County residents paying for rail service, but never getting it.

To sum it up: Voters in the whole Denver Metro region voted years ago on a sales tax to fund FasTracks, which promised rail lines up and down the metro region and a commuter bus between Denver and Boulder. We got the bus, but the train costs ran up quickly and RTD pushed back our Boulder County rails service to 2040 at the earliest.

“There is a lot of frustration about that because the taxpayers have been paying money all of these years toward that investment and have not seen the train,” Bracke says.

But the Northwest Rail is also a part of the County’s transportation plan for the future. In theory, funding would come from RTD and regional partners. But the costs ($1.6 billion) are immense. Trains need to be purchased, rails need to be converted from freight-reader to commuter-reader and infrastructure like passenger and maintenance stations need to be built, even though Boulder County communities have already begun that process. 

One encouraging bit of news: Bracke says Boulder County and its cities have “been working on a concept called peak service rail, and saying, ‘Is there just a commuter — a few trips in the morning, few trips in the evening — type of service that could be put into place sooner?’”

Those conversations are going on right now between RTD, the BNSF Railway Company, which owns the rail, and our local transportation departments.