Traffic backs up on Interstate 70 near Silvethorne on Jan. 7, 2018. It is a familiar scene on the main highway connecting Denver to the mountains. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert, File)

No one needs to explain our state’s growing transportation needs to Coloradans. They live it every day, whether sitting in traffic during rush hour or on Interstate 70 on a weekend, driving harrowing mountain passes or rural narrow shoulders when passing a slow moving trailer, dodging potholes or awaiting a late bus to work or school. 

While recognition of the problem is widespread, Coloradans have been skeptical about how to fix them.

That skepticism makes sense. Even relatively straightforward construction projects often cost tens of millions of dollars, and the price of larger projects can run far higher. 

Shoshana Lew and Karen Stuart

These sums dwarf our personal budgets and are sometimes hard to imagine, placing greater responsibility on the Colorado Department of Transportation to explain and justify the costs. 

CDOT embraced that challenge over the last two years and sought unprecedented feedback and support from Coloradans across the state. In fact, CDOT put the public’s interest in the driver’s seat when mapping out its 10-year plan to meet the state’s mobility needs. 

After conducting hundreds of listening sessions with citizens across Colorado’s 64 counties, CDOT identified the following common-sense priorities:

● Maintain existing infrastructure and keep it in good repair.

● Fix badly decaying rural roads that connect all of Colorado’s communities to food supplies, jobs, recreation, and tourism. Whether it’s peaches from Palisade, Olathe corn, Rocky Ford cantaloupes, or scenic drives along Colorado’s byways, rural roads are crucial to our cherished way of life.

● Reduce congestion on key choke-points like Interstate 270, Floyd Hill, and stretches of Interstate 25.

● And ensure that our “main streets” which anchor our communities provide safe mobility options and enhance our quality of life.

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These public’s priorities became the foundation of CDOT’s 10-year plan — a list of more than 100 shovel-ready projects located in every corner of the state — with dozens more also in development.

With the 10-year plan firmly in place, CDOT was better equipped to juggle targeted delays as the economic impacts of COVID-19 hit last year, and more recently, CDOT was able to seize unexpected federal and state stimulus dollars to quickly greenlight shovel-ready projects to help get Coloradans back to work. 

But transparency is not just about picking projects; it’s also about how we build and manage them. It’s how we share information with the public and hold ourselves accountable to performance metrics. It’s about making previously confusing data and information more accessible to Coloradans. 

In early 2020, CDOT announced a comprehensive accountability strategy. We began by making our budget more accessible and easier to understand. 

We continue to strengthen internal management controls, like incorporating modern software that helps detect irregular patterns and unusual budget requests that could signify a problem. We developed an online dashboard to track CDOT projects and its now available to all Coloradans to see how we are spending our public dollars. Please take a moment to check it out here, as we are working to perfect the tool and would love your input on how to improve it.

Accountability and transparency also means we seek to achieve the most impact from each dollar spent, focusing our funds on actual projects that directly benefit the public rather than on office work and duplicative overhead. 

These efforts are literally paying off: In fiscal year 2019-20, CDOT identified nearly $25 million in cost savings and program reductions, including repurposing funds previously invested in costly non-core initiatives. 

This past fiscal year, we further reduced operating budgets by an additional $2 million. The department also reduced its administration budget by 5.8% in the current fiscal year. This means more money to fix roads and plow the snow. Heightened discipline also means tightening budgets, whether at headquarters and on projects.

Our efforts so far are showing consistent results of 6 to 8% reductions in a variety of CDOT’s budget categories. Our indirect expenditures — the overhead expenses on projects— were down nearly 7% over the last full year, and professional services consultant use fell 8%. Costs in headquarters teams, including the office of the Executive Director, fell 5.8%. 

This is a function both of better controls and of “going back to the basics” by spending more of our budget fixing the backlog of repairs. For instance, in 2020 CDOT fixed 580 miles of rural roads across Colorado.

While we have committed to address the backlog of rural road improvement across the state, we also have to address larger, more complex projects.

Nobody likes the traffic congestion on I-25 — which is home to 85% of our growing population — and the complexities of I-70 are inherent in its topography. But we must choose these projects carefully, cognizant that every large, complex project comes at the expense of many smaller ones.

All of these efforts are important for earning Coloradans’ basic trust in our work, and we must stay focused now and in the future. 

Though we are making significant progress, we will continue to do even more to make sure that the dollars we spend deliver real results for the citizens and communities of this state whom we serve.

Shoshana Lew is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. Karen Stuart is the chair of the Colorado Transportation Commission.

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