The Case Against the Colorado Transportation Sales Tax on the November 2018 Ballot

By Dom Nozzi

I have almost 40 years of academic and professional (and lifestyle) experience in the field of transportation, which is why I am without hesitation voting AGAINST the Proposition 110 sales tax increase for Colorado transportation funding, and urge all Colorado voters to also vote against this measure.

Some bicycling, walking, and transit advocates are joining with motorist and sprawl advocates in voting for this measure because a token amount of the revenue is slated to be directed towards those forms of non-car travel.

However, I think doing so is a terrible mistake. Why? Because ON BALANCE, we take a giant step backwards in promoting bicycling and walking and transit (not to mention a host of other social and municipal objectives) if we pass 110.

The positives of 110 are that a token amount of dollars will be allocated to improvements for cyclists, walkers, and transit. What will be the outcome of doing that? We will see a very modest increase in bicycling, walking and transit use. Worldwide studies show over and over that to be effective in seeing a meaningful shift from car travel to walking or bicycling or transit, we must take things away from motorists (speed, subsidies and space). It is not about providing more sidewalks or bike paths or buses.

By contrast, the negatives of 110 are enormous, because hundreds of millions of new tax dollars will now be made available to widen highways, roads and intersections. If anything, we need to be narrowing a huge percentage of our bloated, oversized roads,Carmageddon highway highways, and intersections. I will only list a few of the significant negatives of 110: a large increase in unaffordable and ruinous suburban sprawl, a large increase in per capita car trips and car travel distances, a large increase in air emissions (which destroys our ability to address climate change in the future), much larger levels of traffic congestion (because it artificially induces new car trips and more remote development that would not have occurred had we not widened), a large increase in traffic fatalities and serious injuries, an increase in the massive financial woes of state and local governments (who cannot afford to maintain our existing infrastructure, let alone the new infrastructure 110 will fund), a substantial worsening of public health, a much more ugly environment in Colorado, a loss of enormous ecologically sensitive areas that would now be replaced by new development, and a big decline in bicycling, walking and transit use.

When we compare the positives and negatives, the net result for bicycling, walking and transit — not to mention the very many social and municipal objectives — shows 110 to be far and away more of a bad deal than a good deal (unless you are with the auto or sprawl lobbies).

I don’t want one penny of my sales tax dollars to go toward ruining the Colorado I love. We’ve poured huge public dollars into making cars happy for the past century, and the outcome has been terrible. I will do everything in my power to fight against this measure. Enough is enough.

Some have responded to my opposition by stating that we should not let “perfection be the enemy of the good.” But in what sense is this measure “good,” on balance? By giving pocket change to building a few sidewalks? It is the equivalent of saying we should support giving the Pentagon another $50 billion to kill thousands more civilians with thousands of new and more powerful bombs because, after all, it is “good” in the sense that we are at the same time giving $10,000 to the UN Peacekeeping office.

Please.

In both the transportation tax and the Pentagon spending, the net result is a vastly worse world, even if we give a few pennies to bike lanes and diplomacy.

This is, quite simply, a Faustian bargain.

As an aside, some 110 supporters argue that the sales tax revenue obtained by Boulder will only be allocated for “progressive” transportation projects – or at least more progressive than how it will be used elsewhere in the state. But this “Boulder Bubble” way of thinking turns a blind eye to the great harm this money will  bring to the “less enlightened” parts of Colorado – harm that will negatively impact Boulder. It is also inaccurate to assume Boulder will not use the money in detrimental ways, as I’ve come to learn during my five years serving on the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board that Boulder is shockingly stuck in the Dark Ages with regard to transportation. To take one example, while it is true that Boulder no longer seems interested in road widenings, this community remains more than happy to widen intersections, which is a highly detrimental transportation (and land use) tactic.

Another aside is that it is far more fair and progressive to obtain new transportation funding with user fees such as road tolls or a VMT tax.  Sales taxes, by contrast, are not only regressive to lower income folks, they also have each of us pay the same amount of tax regardless if we drive an SUV 10,000 miles from a sprawl home each year or ride a bicycle from a town center condo. This is the definition of unfairness.

But even if we opted for the more equitable user fees rather than sales tax, I would still oppose even that reform, as it still means there will be a big increase in dollars available for vastly detrimental road, highway and intersection widenings. Only when our society is forced to learn that we should never again widen, and instead set about shrinking our roads and intersections to a safer, more sustainable human scale should we be finding new transportation dollars.

As of today, however, we continue to fail to learn this existential lesson even though road and intersection widening has done nothing but ruin us for the past century. We remain very far from learning such a fundamental lesson.

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Environment, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

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