If you were hovering a mile or two above Denver – or most any metropolitan roadway in Colorado – you’d see traffic moving along smoothly in what appears to be a fairly normal way. But looks can be deceiving. The experience at ground level is dramatically different.
“The whole town seems like one big pothole,” says Denver office manager, Sarah, who asked her last name not be used. Tons of people who drive metro area streets each day will tell you that they can be challenging; that there are places that look – cosmetically – like they may have been used as staging grounds for artillery strikes. A couple of examples are Federal and Sheridan Boulevards, two north-to-south arterials that are not only among the busiest streets in the city and entire state but also two of the most weather-worn.
Drivers who’ve had experience with these two streets, along with scores of others all across the metro area – will tell you that there are stretches almost anywhere you look that are as pock-marked as the dark side of the moon. They say that if you’re not paying close attention you’ll have a close encounter with any number of these crater-like potholes that dot the route.
“The conditions are terrible,” rants ‘Betty B,’ a name she prefers, as she prepares her Starbucks for the daily 25-mile commute from Wheat Ridge to Aurora. Still, despite her familiarity with the trip and the “damaged roads,” she’ll encounter, she’s never shocked by brand new holes in the road. She also thinks that newly experienced handling problems with her Jeep are directly attributed to the potholes that mark her route.
Betty’s story is one that Jose Cornejo has heard many times. Cornejo is Denver’s Manager of Public Works. His department fixes the roads. This year, he says, the city’s road conditions are the worst they’ve ever been. “Heavy snows and harsh winters,” says Cornejo, are mostly to blame. “They have a tremendous impact on our roads.”
Cornejo’s department has budgeted more than $2.2 million dollars for pothole repairs just this year, alone. His crews expect to fill anywhere between 60,000 to 100,000 potholes this year. So far, they’ve filled slightly more than 40,000, an increase of 15,000 from 2014.
Most of the potholes start in winter. Their growth spurt begins when melting snow fills the holes. The water than freezes as temperatures fall. And, as we know from our earliest science classes, this moisture expands and turns small potholes into big ones. As the winter lingers and the process repeats itself again and again, the potholes continue to grow. It’s a constant game of catch-up for public works.
While winter weather is responsible for a lot of the surface problems on metro streets, this year winter had a partner: an abundance of moisture, especially in May when rain or snow fell more than 20 out of 31 days. It not only exacerbated the pothole problem but also kept crews from getting out to fix them in a timely manner.
“It was almost impossible to go out and fill them,” says Cornejo. As a result, the “hydraulic impact” on the roads just made a bad situation worse. In a normal year, he says, his department tries to fix a pothole within 24-72 hours from when a complaint is lodged. In fact, 48 hours is the usual turnaround on a pothole.
Work crews can count on staying busy and not simply with potholes. There are more than 6,000 lane miles – defined as “a strip of asphalt 12 feet wide and one mile long” – in the city. All but 400 or so are the city’s responsibility. As a result, there will also be a lot of normal paving projects that will get done. The state’s responsibility is for portions of parks and state highways, including stretches of Colfax, Federal, Hampden and Sheridan.
Luckily, in 2012, Denver voters passed Measure 2A, a tax that provided an additional $4.5 million per year through 2017 to pay for street repairs. While it is a lot of money, the department says there are more than five thousand lane miles in the city that are in constant need of maintenance. But bad or even dangerous roads don’t stop at the edge of metro areas.
Colorado’s quality of life, along with one of the nation’s healthiest economies, has been both a blessing and curse. In the last twenty years, the state’s population has doubled. Most of it has settled along the Front Range. That means a lot of congestion from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. “We spend about fifty hours a year sitting in traffic,” says Ford. “And that doesn’t include mountain driving.”
Most of that idle time is spent by Front Range drivers. To ease this daily torture, the state has undertaken a massive effort to add space along I-25 in Denver – T-Rex – expanding Highway 36 between Boulder and Denver, including special toll lanes, and added more lanes to a stretch of I-25 in Colorado Springs. It also has plans for dealing with I-70 gridlock east of I-25.
A new toll schedule will go into effect in July for Highway 36. Eastbound “solo drivers” will pay $7.60 during morning peak time (7:15 a.m-8:15 a.m.) for the faster lanes. Off peak rates will fall to $1.25 (10:00 a.m-3:00 p.m.). The lesser rates will also apply “all day on weekends.” Information can be found at CDOT.gov.
Because Colorado, unlike many other states, has relatively few toll roads, the rates might seem high or even excessive. But Ford says the rates are consistent with other states – about forty-five cents a mile during peak hours – and significantly lower than places like California where drivers pay almost three times as high. But commuters can also opt for RTD which will have dedicated lanes on Highway 36. Or, they can also car pool or join the crowd in the free lanes.
Ford says that Colorado is not alone in the daily challenge that comes with maintaining more than 9,000 lane miles from north to south and east to west in the country’s eighth largest state. State revenues, she says, along with an annual federal contribution have simply not kept pace.
Colorado, unlike most other states, doesn’t have the luxury of a legislature that can vote new taxes for road improvements. The Taxpayers Bill of Rights, TABOR, prevents it and says that state voters must approve all new tax hikes. It also says that the state cannot spend revenue collected under current tax rates without voter approval. As a result, says Ford, there remains an $800 million gap trying to meet the transportation needs of a growing state.
Besides roadways, CDOT must also address bridge safety. According to a recent Congressional study, nearly one in five of Colorado’s bridges is rated as “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”
If Colorado continues to entice newcomers, roadways will only grow more crowded and greater demands will be put upon them. So, for now and the foreseeable future, Colorado – like all states – will continue its game of ‘catch-up.’ So far, this plan of action has worked. ‘How well’ and ‘how long’ it works are the other important question still to be answered.