Mayor Michael Hancock's administration may move to create a new city transportation agency as Denver considers a transit investment that could total billions of dollars.
Denver officials have been talking publicly since 2017 about the idea of creating the new department. Now, the director of Denver Public Works says the decision could go to voters as early as May or November 2019, if elected leaders approve.
In the short term, the change could allow the city to better coordinate its efforts on transportation and mobility. It also could lay the groundwork for larger projects and changes.
The big idea
Currently, the city's Department of Public Works handles everything from trash collection to automobile traffic and dockless scooters. The potential new department would take over all the city's transportation-related duties, and it would be led by a new cabinet-level position, which would create new prominence for transportation issues in the city.
The change would have to go first through Denver City Council and then be approved in a local election. The decision comes as the city weighs long-term transportation plans that could cost billions.
The city's plan for the next 22 years outlines about $1.7 billion worth of potential spending on sidewalks and trails alone. The administration also wants to build up transportation services on major corridors like Colorado Boulevard, whether it's special bus lanes or new rail lines.
Moving beyond RTD?
Right now, the city relies on the Regional Transportation District for its bus and train service — but the city's ambitions may exceed RTD's budget.
Transit lines in Boulder , Golden and Aurora have all faced reduced service recently; RTD said the cuts were a response to low ridership. And a planned rail line to Boulder has been delayed past 2040. That has prompted some cities in the northwestern metro to consider a lawsuit , and Boulder also has looked at the idea of a new local transit authority.
In Denver, the creation of a new department would not necessarily come with new money. And the city is unlikely to replace RTD's core services.
Still, the city has shown some appetite for transit spending, including for bus-rapid transit on Colfax.
"It's not just the local governments. Everybody in town is looking at how transportation affects the quality of life of people," said Kate Williams, executive director of the Denver Regional Mobility & Access Council, who is also an RTD board member. "Transportation has come right up to be on the same level of housing."
Denver could get some new spending power from Proposition 110, a proposed increase to sales taxes that will be on the statewide ballot this November. If it passes, the city stands to collect $846 million over 20 years, according to projections.
With a new transportation department, Denver also could pay for enhanced RTD services, or to launch its own services, according to a city study.
RTD "seems open" to the idea, the study said, but the district was concerned that Denver could compete against its services.
"Based upon our excellent working relationship with the City of Denver, we do not have any major concerns with the plans we've seen and discussed," wrote RTD spokesperson Scott Reed in an email to the Denver Post.
"While it would not make sense for any municipality to duplicate RTD services, supplementing RTD services with increased service and alternative modes is a very logical approach that can maximize everyone's mobility options and transit investments."
DPW Director Eulois Cleckley already has reorganized his department, separating out transportation staffers into a new chain of command.
Cleckley said at a recent meeting that Denver could ask voters to create a separate city department as early as May. November 2019 also is an option. The Denver City Council would decide whether to put the question on the ballot.
Other U.S. cities, including Oakland, Seattle, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Portland and Washington, D.C., have local transportation departments.
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