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Colorado advocates hail ‘year of transit’ as Gov. Polis signs funding bills into law

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Colorado advocates hail ‘year of transit’ as Gov. Polis signs funding bills into law

May 17, 2024 | 5:15 pm ET
By Chase Woodruff
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Colorado advocates hail ‘year of transit’ as Gov. Polis signs funding bills into law
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs a bill reauthorizing zero-fare transit programs aboard an RTD commuter train on May 16, 2024. (Gov. Jared Polis)

Gov. Jared Polis used a brief whistle-stop tour on Denver-area railroads Thursday to sign into law a package of legislation that he and environmental advocates hope will mark a turning point in Colorado’s long-running efforts to develop a statewide multimodal transportation system.

Together, the new laws will raise as much as $200 million annually for new rail projects and expanded transit service, reauthorize zero-fare programs and study the creation of a statewide transit pass. The new revenue will come from fees on rental cars and oil and gas production.

“2024 will go down as the year of transit,” Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement celebrating the bill signings. “Taken together these bills jumpstart our bus and train system, making it possible to double transit service in the next decade.”

Joined by bill sponsors and other state officials, Polis traveled on a Regional Transportation District commuter train to Denver’s Union Station from a stop in Westminster, the current terminus of RTD’s B Line. The agency has plans for the route, authorized by voters as part of the 2004 FasTracks initiative, to serve Longmont and Boulder, but years of delays have pushed back its completion as far as the 2040s as RTD saves up for its higher-than-expected $1.5 billion price tag.

Polis and state lawmakers are optimistic that timeline will be substantially accelerated by the passage of millions in new funding for RTD and the momentum behind the state’s plans for an intercity passenger rail system along the Front Range.

Senate Bill 24-184 will raise an estimated $58 million annually with a new $3 per day fee on rental cars, allocating the revenue to multimodal transportation projects, with an eye toward competing for federal rail grants and beginning to make the necessary infrastructure and safety improvements along the Front Range rail corridor.

During my time in elected office, Colorado has taken leaps and bounds forward when it comes to smart, successful transportation policy.

– State Sen. Kevin Priola

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 24-230 will levy new per-unit fees on oil and gas production, raising over $100 million in a typical year for RTD operations and local transit projects.

“This landmark legislation brought together the oil and gas industry and environmental advocates to protect our air quality while making historic investments in public transportation,” Polis said in a press release on the signing of SB-230. “I am excited to see the ways these investments will improve our air quality and modernize transportation and transit in our great state.”

Both SB-184 and SB-230 contain language aimed at uniting RTD and the Front Range Passenger Rail District behind a push to begin a “starter service” of a few trains per day between Denver and Fort Collins within the next several years, on tracks planned to eventually be shared by both services. By qualifying as intercity service, the hybrid route could secure federal funding for projects along the B Line corridor and “expedite completion of the entire rail service,” according to SB-184.

While aboard the B Line train, Polis also signed into law Senate Bill 24-32, which reauthorizes the Zero Fare for Better Air program for a third year. The state-funded initiative reimburses RTD and other transit agencies for providing fare-free service in the summer, when ozone pollution from cars and other sources is at its peak. SB-32 will also convene a new Colorado Department of Transportation committee to explore the creation of a statewide transit pass.

“During my time in elected office, Colorado has taken leaps and bounds forward when it comes to smart, successful transportation policy,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, an SB-32 sponsor. “I’m proud to have sponsored legislation that will improve upon our past work while continuing to innovate. I’m excited for SB-32 to streamline a statewide transit system that encourages usage and saves people money.”