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Transportation

I-25 traffic jams are shifting northern Colorado transit plans into high gear. But are commuters ready to ditch their cars?

Northern Colorado region is growing so fast that it’s almost another Denver, and we know how everyone loves I-25 in Denver.

Passengers unload passing by Jayne Niemann as she waits to get off the Bustang from Loveland on May 22, 2019, in Denver. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Jayne Niemann had a dream job waiting for her in Denver. The problem was, she lived in Loveland, and driving down Interstate 25 every morning for an hour sounded about as much fun as riding a rollercoaster after a Thanksgiving meal.

Niemann, 36, didn’t want to move because her home was cheap, and she wanted to stay with her roller derby team. She was reluctantly prepared to turn it down. And then a friend told her about Bustang, a service offered by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

A week later, she waited in the U.S. 34 Park-n-Ride for the bus as a light snow fell at 7 a.m., joining a dozen others for a cushy ride down I-25 while cuddling with her smartphone to her job as an office manager for an industry she loves, an interior design company, off the 16th Street Mall.

“It was part of my decision to take the job,” Niemann said. “If I couldn’t take this, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. I like commuting. I don’t like I-25.”

No one really does.

The northern Colorado region is growing so fast that it’s almost another Denver, and we know how everyone loves I-25 in Denver. Northern Colorado was one of the top 10 in the country in terms of growth just a couple years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, after a boom that’s lasted nearly two decades.

Traffic counts on I-25 reflect this: In October 2001, more than 58,000 cars every day on average traveled past a CDOT counter stationed at Colorado 402 near Loveland, but 10 years later, a daily average of 69,000 swept by. In October 2018, a daily average of 84,000 cars traveled by Colorado 402.

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That growth boom was one of the reasons CDOT decided to put plans for an extra lane on I-25 from Loveland to Fort Collins on the, ahem, fast track after northern Colorado cities came up with the money to help build it. It will be an express lane, but it’s still an extra lane that wasn’t supposed to be there until 2035. The $250 million project should be complete by 2022.

Yet even with that impending expansion of the interstate from Colorado 402 to Colorado 14 in Fort Collins, most officials believe that public  transportation will have to be a bigger part of commuters’ day to cure the clogged cars.

Denver’s commuting culture makes it possible for some residents in that area to ride to work without ever starting their car. But now, with several options, not just Bustang, it’s increasingly possible for northern Colorado residents to turn their cars into weekend warriors as well.

More than adding traffic lanes, buses and trains, the challenge comes down to changing attitudes and the way commuters think about going from place to place.

Passengers load onto the Bustang on May 22, 2019, at the Park-n-Ride at the intersection of U.S. 34 and Interstate 25 outside of Loveland. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Bustang Boom

Bustang was really supposed to be a Band-Aid. The buses would take northern Colorado residents down to Denver until the state could build a rail line. Many even questioned whether there would be a market for it.

Ticket to Ride

Well, yeah.

Since Bustang’s inaugural run on July 13, 2015, ridership increased by 300%. Now an average of 17,000 hop on per month.

“Clearly, we have a market for it,” said Jared Fiel, spokesman for Colorado Department of Transportation’s region 4, which includes northeastern Colorado. “We have six buses that go (from Fort Collins to Denver) every day during the weekday. Those buses are packed.”

Bustang, in fact, exceeded its projected numbers after just the first year, unheard of in an industry that usually requires that year to get a consistent group of riders going, if it does at all. These routes take people to work, but they also take college students to Denver from Colorado State University and then back, and rabid Broncos fans to the game and back.

It’s such a success that CDOT will scrap the U.S. 34 Park-n-Ride stop and build a station in the middle of Interstate 25 that shouldn’t be nearly as scary as it sounds and should save riders 15 minutes a day.

Bustang proves residents want a better way to get to work, home or school in northern Colorado. It’s just a piece of the whole regional transportation puzzle that should help ease traffic problems, or at least make it more bearable when you’re tangled in it.

The question remains, will more commuters use it?

Landscape passes by as Jayne Niemann rides Bustang with other commuters from northern Colorado to Denver. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Denver is different

Suzette Mallette admits she occasionally misses living in Arvada.

She enjoys working as the executive director for the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization in Fort Collins, but years ago, she rode the bus from her home in Arvada to her job in Denver. She could walk a short distance to her office once she left the bus.

“That’s not the way it’s set up here,” Mallette said. “As we are growing, we need to give people options. If we just have cars, that’s not giving people options.”

Kristie Melendez, Windsor’s mayor and chair of the planning organization, said northern Colorado’s population explosion took many by surprise, even though it’s pretty much been booming since 2000.

Census numbers show the Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley communities were among the top 15 in the nation in 2014, a push that partly came from cannabis, officials say, in addition to cheaper housing (compared to Denver anyway), economic growth and quality of life.

“Maybe you grew up in Denver, and so you’re used to it,” Melendez said. “But some of the traffic or the issues we are seeing or experience are new to us. It’s not like we grew up with this.”

Maybe so, but even 10 years ago, people commuted in northern Colorado, too. When the organization surveyed commuters, it discovered that 30% of people who live in Greeley work elsewhere. In Fort Collins, nearly 20%.

Ten years ago, when these numbers were released as a part of the organization’s study of residents’ work habits, Loveland shocked everyone when the survey revealed that 55% of its workforce goes somewhere else. The organization is working on a new report that it hopes to issue by the end of the year.

Even so, northern Colorado faces challenges that Denver doesn’t. Yes, there’s talk of a light rail, though it will cost — gulp — an estimated $1.8 billion to build, more than CDOT’s entire annual budget. There’s a somewhat scattered workforce, instead of a concentration in downtown Denver, that makes it harder to solve the problem of what officials call the last mile, the relatively short distance from another ride to the office that isn’t easy to cover when you don’t have a car.

There’s the notion that northern Colorado residents aren’t aware of all the options because the collective mindset isn’t there the way it is in Denver.

There’s also the same obstacles here as there are in Denver: Residents don’t want to give up the freedom of their cars, or their personal space, or spend the time to figure out a route on a bus to get them there.

“Personal space is a biggie,” said Shane Armstrong, the operations services coordinator of VanGo, a van-pool service run by North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization. “People want to listen to their music, and they want to come and go as they please. But once people look at what it actually costs to fuel their car and repair their car, it’s actually a no-brainer.”

Traffic in downtown Denver on Oct. 30, 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Sometimes, the market practically demands that commuters take another look at those costs. In 2014, VanGo had 99 vans operating with an average of five riders a vehicle paying a monthly subscription fee to travel to Denver or all over northern Colorado, but that was when gas was $4 a gallon. Now gas is a dollar cheaper, and VanGo is operating close to 50 vans.

That’s still a success, Armstrong said, as the program nearly pays for itself. But it’s not 100 vans.

Other than personal space, the biggest obstacle still seems to be that people don’t really know VanGo exists, even after being in operation for more than 20 years, unless a van passes a commuter who looks at the riders reading articles (ahem) on their smartphones and begins to wonder if there’s a better way.

“The best way of spreading the word is our vans,” Armstrong said. “People see the vans and want to know more about us.”

On your mark, get set …

Even in Denver, people like to drive their own cars.

“But what’s the breaking point?” said Will Jones, Greeley’s deputy director of public works who worked for many years as Greeley’s transit manager. “It’s the traffic. It’s parking and the fact that it costs money.”

There are incentives, in other words, to take public transportation in Denver. But in northern Colorado, rather than offering a way to avoid negatives, transportation officials hope to offer perks.

Those perks include WiFi and USB charging ports on the buses that will run Greeley’s new Poudre Express bus line between Fort Collins, Windsor and Greeley. That offers a chance to get an hour’s work done, or stream “Game of Thrones,” during the ride.

“That’s why we do it,” Jones said.

That may help make the route between Fort Collins and Greeley last. Greeley had a service, the U.S. 34 Express, but it died in 2011. So is WiFi the difference now? Jones, honestly, doesn’t think so.

“That line didn’t connect activity centers,” Jones said.

Those activity centers include colleges and places that serve large groups of workers, Jones said, and it’s an indication of bus lines asking riders where they need to go, rather than telling them where they need to go. Buses in northern Colorado, in other words, don’t just take people to shopping centers anymore.

Greeley, Loveland and Fort Collins all did ridership surveys and changed their routes in recent years to accommodate commuters. It appears to be working. Even with the transportation industry facing a downturn or no real growth, rider numbers are up in all three major northern Colorado cities.

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In 2017, Greeley’s bus line served 750,000 riders. In 2018, that number jumped to 819,000, Jones said. Greeley also built a new transfer station a couple years ago with help from a CDOT grant.

Greeley has big hopes for the future. The Poudre Express will begin operating in 2020, and future plans of CDOT’s Bustang program include coming to Greeley up and down U.S. 85. That demand could also come from both sides: Jones was surprised to learn recently that 800 workers from the JBS meatpacking plant travel to Greeley from Denver every day.  

Loveland also saw a 15% increase in the city’s transit riders since November, when it changed its routes based on information given by residents.

Interstate 25’s facelift will make a difference, but for traffic to really improve, people will have to embrace regional transportation, said Candice Folkers, transit manager for Loveland.

She said the problem of the last mile really isn’t that much of a problem anymore, given that transit centers try to pay attention to those things and Lyft and Uber offer quick service and cheap rides to cover the rest. Indeed, COLT, Loveland’s transit system, offers ways to hook up with FLEX, a regional bus route serving stops between Fort Collins, Loveland, Berthoud, Longmont and Boulder and operated by Transfort of Fort Collins.

“The industry is taking care of itself, and it’s happening organically,” Folkers said.

Passengers walk to the Bustang as it pulls into the Park-n-Ride on Loveland on the morning of May 22, 2019. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Highway to Hell

You can’t write a story about transportation without writing about Interstate 25. That would be like making an “Avengers” movie without Iron Man.

Other improvements around I-25

There are some extra goodies that come with the extra lane on I-25 through Fort Collins. Here are a few.

  • Kendall Parkway Bustang station — CDOT will build a bus transfer station in the middle of I-25 that should save riders 15 minutes over the current U.S. 34 Park-n-Ride in Loveland because of the ease in getting off and on the interstate. Plans are for a pathway for riders to walk under I-25 from the parking lot to the station. This design will be the new standard. The design will also allow Centerra’s owners to build a road that connect to Kendall Parkway.
  • U.S. 34 and I-25 — Jared Fiel, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation’s region 4, which includes northern Colorado, calls this the busiest interchange in northern Colorado, and it’s hard to argue with him. Traffic occasionally piles up on U.S. 34 well beyond the exit. Loveland and Johnstown chipped in additional money to fix this. CDOT will combine the east and west bridges, take out the medians and add a third lane going over I-25 in each direction. CDOT, in fact, hopes to find more money to tear it down and design a three-level system that would leave I-25 and U.S. 34 free-flowing. Regardless, any design will be an improvement.
  • Bridges at the Poudre River east of Fort Collins — By raising as well as expanding the bridges to prevent floods, the design will also allow the Poudre RiverTrail in Weld County to connect with the Poudre River Trail in Larimer County and create a wildlife corridor with the idea of reducing crashes with deer and possibly elk.  
  • The Colo. 402 interchange — CDOT will replace those annoying lights with roundabouts and put 402 on top of I-25.

Maybe that’s not a good example now. The point is, I-25 is where most of the employment and population growth takes place, both along the urban corridor in Denver and in Fort Collins. The interstate also sweeps by Windsor and Loveland and all those shopping centers, restaurants and entertainment options, including an events center, movie theater and bowling and laser tag business.

The construction of an express lane with a toll wasn’t going to happen for another 10 to 15 years, but tremendous lobbying efforts from northern Colorado leaders led then-Gov. John Hickenlooper to mention north I-25 in a State of the State address six years ago. That happened about the same time CDOT’s then-executive director, Shailen Bhatt, got stuck in one of northern Colorado’s epic Friday afternoon traffic jams.

Bingo. I-25 North was suddenly a priority.

The problem, experts say, is that transportation doesn’t get all that much money. The legislature just moved a bond issue to the 2020 ballot that would authorize $1.8 billion to fund mostly state highways. Elected officials are still a bit jittery after voters soundly rejected two propositions that would have added $9.5 billion to projects. One would have raised the state sales tax.

CDOT gets more than 60% of its money from a state and federal gas tax that hasn’t increased since 1991. Imagine paying your rent from a 1991 paycheck, said Fiel, CDOT’s spokesman. CDOT does get a little more money from the FASTER fee on vehicle registrations, but that bump was leveled by better gas mileage and electric cars. The legislature funds about 5%.

CDOT uses just 6% of its total budget for expansion projects. That’s all it can afford. Nearly half goes to maintenance, and 13% goes to grants to increase or fix alternative transportation. Even emergencies only get 2.5%.

That’s why, even with the shout-out in Hickenlooper’s speech, CDOT wouldn’t have had the money to cover the costs unless a contingent of northern Colorado communities and businesses chipped in. Led by Loveland, Fort Collins and Johnstown, and including Timnath, Windsor and Weld and Larimer counties, the governments contributed $55 million. Another $15 million came in the form of a federal grant, likely because of the community commitment, Fiel said.

“That money bought those communities a time machine,” Fiel said. “It will be now done by 2021. The region has totally stepped up.”

CDOT also got a federal grant to add an express lane from Colorado 56, at Berthoud, to Colorado 402 that will be done by 2022 and is looking for money to add the lane from Colorado 66 in Mead to Colorado 56.

The express lane irks some people, given that it’s generally a toll road unless you have a car full of people, but Fiel said the plans were always to build an express lane plus one more lane by 2075. In fact, CDOT took out a 20-year loan against that toll revenue to fund the time machine. If the lane was built in 2035, it would have been an express lane.

The main reason for the express lane was what transportation officials call “trip reliability.” Even with an extra lane, there’s no guarantee that I-25 will take residents down to Denver in an hour. But the express lane gives drivers that reliability, so the interstate is less of a gamble. Northern Colorado leaders wanted that reliability, and CDOT practically had to guarantee it.

“You have to have that reliability,” Fiel said. “An express lane was always the plan. Even if we had found the money ourselves, that’s how we would have done it.”

CDOT is seeing good results after an express lane was added in Thornton, so the lane in Fort Collins should help thin out traffic, Fiel said.

The good news is the $250 million project is ready to go regardless of what the legislature or voters do with transportation funding, Fiel said. That money is vital to I-25 as a viable way to travel from Fort Collins to Denver, as traffic projections now would make the current interstate nearly useless by 2040.

“Clearly we needed to do something for a long time,” Fiel said. “We know that. I still get three or four calls a week from people suggesting, ‘Hey, have you thought about expanding I-25?’ We just had no ability to deal with it. Now we do.”

RTD’s University of Colorado A-Line train at Denver’s Union Station on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Back to the Future

As if the possibility of a rail line isn’t enough — and it is a possibility despite the billion-dollar price tag — Fiel’s thoughts about the future sound, well, futuristic, like a James Bond “Moonraker” future.

And it’s something that northern Colorado, possibly all of Colorado, needs as the state continues to grow. Northern Colorado’s population, for instance, is supposed to double by 2040.

“Technology will be the biggest driver,” said Fiel, who is funny but didn’t mean the pun. “You can’t build your way out of this. That’s why we stop at adding three lanes, plus one, by 2075. After that, you’re into flying cars.”

Maybe not flying cars (or maybe so by then), but what about self-driving cars? They’re already on the road in limited numbers. What if the express lane was transformed into a self-driving lane, and because they’re self-driving, they could go 200 miles an hour, packed together like a bee swarm? Fiel thinks we are just 10 years away from that, and that’s a conservative estimate.

“You won’t even need to buy a car,” Fiel said. “A car picks you up. That’s what you will see, I think.”

If that seems too far out for you — as in, “far out, man” — there’s always the light rail, the closest thing to space-age technology open to anyone. Gov. Jared Polis is a huge proponent of it, Fiel said, and just based on Bustang numbers, there’s a need for it in northern Colorado.

“And now that it’s a priority for the governor,” Fiel said of the light rail, “it’s a priority for us.”

CDOT is searching for some existing rail that could connect Longmont to Denver, Fiel said, and that could help cut the cost a bit. That would be CDOT’s first foray into light rail for the north.

There could be hope offered by President Trump’s administration. He made reference to spending $2 trillion in infrastructure in the next few years. That could signal more federal money being pumped into transportation.

But Fiel also cautions against getting too optimistic if the federal government doesn’t pony up more money.

“There’s a lot of other priorities from Polis,” Fiel said. “Year-round kindergarten, for example, will cost a lot.”

Perhaps the biggest change won’t come from money. It will come from mindset. Northern Colorado needs regional transportation, and more than that, it needs its residents to use it. Fiel, in fact, uses himself as an example.

“I’m now in the RTD bus system,” Fiel said. “I didn’t know this. Why didn’t I think about it?”

Niemann’s only complaint of the Bustang, for instance, was she wishes there were more routes on Friday afternoon and evening, so she could take work off early or perhaps enjoy Denver before heading home.

Eventually, traffic and money may help ease residents out of the need to take their own car everywhere.

It’s already happening with younger generations. The number of kids who want their driver’s licenses is down, officials said. They prefer other methods of travel. Why can’t adults?

“A lot of folks have done it the same way for a long time, and that’s a struggle,” Fiel said.

Yet if folks continue to do that, things will always get worse. This new project offers some innovations that people wouldn’t have considered even a few years ago, including that bus station in the middle of I-25.

A different approach may be the only way to solve northern Colorado’s transportation woes.

“I’m nearly 50,” Fiel said. “But I can still change the way I think.”

“It’s a very different design,” Fiel said, “and it looks amazing.”

CDOT will close Colorado 402 on June 11 for 120 days for construction of the new design.

“But after those 120 days, it will be done, and you can see the framework for the rest of how this will work,” Fiel said.

Clarification: This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. on May 23, 2019, to include Timnath, Windsor and Weld and Larimer counties in the list of communities contributing money to speed construction of an additional I-25 lane in northern Colorado and to update the day Colorado 402 will close.

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