Looking Back: The Start of the US 36 Mayors & Commissioners Coalition

Will Toor is director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), a Colorado based nonprofit that advocates for energy efficiency in six southwestern states. In this role he works to advance both smart growth transportation strategies and electric vehicles. Prior to working at SWEEP, Will spent 15 years in local government, as mayor of Boulder, Colorado , as Boulder County Commissioner, and as chair of the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG).  He serves on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Mobility Choice Blueprint board of directors.

Roots in Conflict

I still remember attending my first meeting of the US 36 Major Investment Study (MIS) back in 1998, with my infant son slung across my chest in a Baby Bjorn, soon after I was first elected to Boulder’s city council. Life with an infant was exciting but chaotic – which kind of described the 36 MIS debates. There were so many different perspectives – “We need rail! No, we need to expand US 36 to ten lanes! No, we need HOV lanes and better bus service!”  – coming from the different communities, that we couldn’t reach agreement. And without a consensus on the corridor, it was pretty clear that the outcome would be nothing happening – US 36 would just sit there, getting worse and worse.

Against this backdrop, three mayors began talking about whether we could change the outcome –Tom Davidson from Louisville, Bill Berens from Broomfield and me. At the time, Boulder and Broomfield were locked in conflict over Broomfield’s plans to build the Northwest parkway, and to develop what Boulder viewed as sprawl along 36, and we were pretty much disagreeing about everything. But a series of conversations  – sometimes over coffee, sometimes beer – convinced us that we could find common ground on plans for 36 – and that if we could, that probably the whole corridor could. Out of these conversations the US 36 Mayors & Commissioners Coalition was born.

The Birth of the Coalition

I still remember the day Bill Berens and I testified together in support of the proposed US 36 MIS alternative – the first time people had seen us in public arm in arm instead of arguing. It made a big impression, and helped get RTD and CDOT on board.

And over the years, I think the initial theory was born out in practice. We had lots of vigorous arguments about what transportation investments we should support, and how best to move these forward – but were always able to come to agreement, and to present a unified front to key decision-makers from regional, state and federal agencies. And that unity made all the difference.

Better Together

The coalition successfully resisted pressure from the Owens administration to add more highway lanes and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost. The years of effort promoting a true multimodal project with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), HOT lanes and a bikeway on the highway corridor paid off when the federal government provided a $10 million TIGER grant and a TIFIA challenge grant, championed by Congressman Polis. The unity paid off when, amazingly, the Coalition was able to leverage that $10 million grant and TIFIA challenge into a $500 million project that combined funding from RTD, CDOT, DRCOG, federal funds and the private sector. It took a while to go from concept to an actual BRT service on 36 (my infant son graduated from high school about the time that 36 was completed), but much of the original vision was realized.

The challenges clearly aren’t over – for example, we need to complete the missing elements of BRT on 36 and complete the arterial BRT corridors that connect to the corridor – but looking back over the last twenty years I’m amazed how far we have come by working together.