03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Regional Transit Key to Colorado's Future

Long term, Colorado is going to continue to grow in leaps and bounds. In the Denver Metro Area alone, the population is forecasted to grow from 2.8 million now to 4.8 million by 2040. Given how much I despise sitting in traffic, this expansion really concerns me -- how is everyone going to get around? Will we all eventually have to move to Montana to find a square inch not covered by asphalt?

In my view, the answer clearly is rapid transit, particularly rail. I recently decided I wanted to deepen my knowledge of transit and transit-oriented development, so I applied and was accepted to the Transit Alliance Citizen's Academy. Our classes are once a week and hosted by the Denver Chamber of Commerce. This column is the first of six that I will write over the coming weeks summarizing what we discussed in class.

It bears expanding on the worst case scenario -- if unchecked and unplanned sprawl will continue, especially in the southeast, east and northeastern parts of the metro area; pollution will double (weren't we recently given the ignominious title of most polluted air?); government spending will increase per capita to pay for more roads, police, fire and water coverage to feed the voracious beast of growth; and this is not to mention that the way of life we currently enjoy will be displayed in a quaint exhibit in the Colorado History Museum. This all is according to the projection of the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), which spends all day studying these things. I plan to retire by 2040, but honestly I worry not only about then but also what about the next 50 to 100 years after that? We need to think and act for the very long term.

Jill Locantore of DRCOG guided our 50 person class through an electronic voting system where we registered our feedback after a series of group "café conversations," a run-through of how the outcomes in our future will be determined by the series of decisions our government and voters make. The first question dealt with development density, with 67% of the class opting for the next to highest level of compactness -- lots of condos and smaller homes. Secondly, in terms of the type of development distribution we wanted, 66% said it should be around multiple centers in order to focus greater growth around transit stations. The third issue was how much we thought the metro area road network should be upgraded. Half of us preferred a moderate upgrade, and a third wanted to maintain it at current levels. This begged the next question of whether to maintain the current rail system and bus service, moderately expand it (ie. FasTracks), or significantly expand it beyond FasTracks. The last option was the clear favorite, with 71% of the vote. Next, would the urban environment favor drivers, maintain the current mix, or some scale of more heavily favoring alternatives? Sixty percent supported alternatives and the remainder felt even more strongly so. The last question dealt with the reason why we all live here -- the environment. Would we want to maintain the current investments in the management of energy, air, water and greenhouse gas emissions and waste? Fully half of my class thought we should achieve the highest level of best practices.

Presto magic, and Locantore's computer displayed how given the inputs the plurality suggested in each category, the outcomes would be much better than the worst case scenario. Upwards of 15% of people in 2040 would use transit, walk and bicycle, rather than less than the 5% currently. There would be more options for housing, more government spending per capita but less than the worst case scenario because development would be more compact and would not require as much strain on services. The class' collective wisdom even bested every category in DRCOG's recommendations in its MetroVision 2035 report, except for government spending because we suggested a greater investment in transit.

Naturally, all of our discussions in our groups struggled with the balance of where we need to go and how we were going to realistically pay for these projects to get there. In addition, we wondered if the outcomes would be as we expected it, especially given concerns over the sensitivities in the software calculating the results given our inputs. Besides, there wasn't always unanimous agreement even with the "progressive" nature of the class population.

Yet, the conversation was definitely worth it, and overall, 76% of the class was somewhat or very satisfied with the exercise and its outcomes. Naturally, it is difficult to project the future (as we see with FasTracks), so feel free to click here to make your own projections. But, as this exercise clearly showed, if we aren't aggressive enough in promoting transit-oriented development as we address our clear growth projections, today's kids and grandkids most certainly won't like the result of our decisions. See you next week.