January 23, 2018

The Ins and Outs of Federal Transportation Funding: Golden’s Options for Funding Our “Safe, Slow, and Quiet” Muller Plan

One of the most challenging issues in our community discussion about the beltway fight is the funding of Golden’s own Muller Plan. These “Safe, Slow, and Quiet” improvements have been a central part of our long-term strategy for protecting Golden from the beltway and from other growth in traffic on U.S. 6 and Highway 93.

The challenging reality is that we probably can’t fund these projects unless and until Golden and Jefferson County reach some kind of agreement. Why? There are only three main mechanisms for securing federal funding for transportation projects like our Muller Plan projects, and all three depend on the local jurisdictions working in collaboration.

1) Grant funding (e.g., the federal TIGER grant program under the stimulus bill). Local collaboration among jurisdictions will continue to be an implicit or explicit condition of grant funding. The only Colorado project to receive TIGER funding was the 36 Corridor project (light rail, bus rapid transit, other highway improvements), a project that has the energetic support of every impacted jurisdiction. We can always submit proposals for grant funding like this (another transportation grant program is rumored to be in the works), but we are exceedingly unlikely to actually get any of these grants without Jeffco’s support.

2) Congressionally directed funding. Earmarks are the best-known type of Congressionally-directed funding, but members of Congress have other tools for doing this as well, including “phonemarks,” directly persuading the Cabinet Secretary to support specific projects, and other legislative strategies. Even if Congress reinstates the earmark system or replaces it with something comparable (as many expect it will do), our Congressional delegation is extremely unlikely to support any sort of funding for Golden projects if Jefferson County objects to them. Conversely, they’ve been very clear that they will support us in securing funding for projects in Golden that have Jefferson County’s buy-in. None of them want to get in the middle of a disagreement between Jefferson County and Golden.

3) The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) funding process. This is the primary option. Funding through this process is based on a points system. Golden has lost points in its effort to secure funding for Highway 93 safety improvements because we didn’t have political or financial support from Jefferson County. Many communities secure project funding despite not having the highest-scoring projects, but securing funding in this way is extremely difficult if the directly impacted jurisdictions themselves object (and every one of Golden’s projects is within Jefferson County, of course). On the other hand, where we have the support of other directly impacted communities, we have been able to secure funding. Since I’ve represented Golden at DRCOG, I’ve been able to secure funding for both of the projects I went after (our initial community bus feasibility study and the Golden Bluffs Connector bicycle/pedestrian path in southern Golden) in part because I had built support from other jurisdictions. This is true for other communities as well; while some projects just score high enough outright to get funded (ours probably won’t), most projects like ours that get funded end up on the list because the proponents have built strong support among the other impacted communities. Without Jefferson County on board, we probably won’t be able to do this.

In other words, while it is theoretically possible for Golden to secure funding to implement the Golden Plan for transportation improvements, it is very difficult and unlikely if the local jurisdictions aren’t in agreement.

Just to be clear, this is only one factor in deciding whether to reach an agreement with Jefferson County. But this basic reality of transportation funding is a key reason that our options have such pronounced tradeoffs. There are some advantages to the “no agreement with Jefferson County” option, but this is one serious downside: we probably won’t be able to fund any of our “Safe, Slow, and Quiet” Muller Plan improvements.