On traffic deaths, Denver mayoral candidates’ proposals are all over the map

Wider streets? Narrower streets? More cops? Lower speeds? Candidates threw out a lot of ideas at a transportation-specific forum.
6 min. read
Renata Behrens (left to right), Lisa Calderón, Terrance Roberts, Aurelio Martinez, Leslie Herod, Al Gardner and Ean Thomas Tafoya sit on the “State of our Streets” mayoral forum at DSST Elevate Northeast High School in Montbello. March 9, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Thursday afternoon, a group of Denver's transit enthusiasts met at Union Station. They took the A line to the 42 bus to a high school in the far northeast, where transportation advocacy groups were hosting a mayoral forum.

The trip clocked in at around an hour, not including the time it took people to get to Union Station. That, perhaps, is part of the problem that Denverites sought solutions for from the 17 candidates on the ballot for Denver's top job.

Kwame Spearman and Trinidad Rodriguez were the only candidates to join community members on the RTD trip to Montbello for the "State of our Streets" forum. But everyone on the ballot except state Sen. Chris Hansen showed up to talk transportation in Denver.

The forum made one thing clear: there's no consensus on why traffic deaths keep going up, or what Denver should do about it.

In 2017, Denver committed to Vision Zero, an effort to bring traffic deaths down to zero by 2030. Five years later, deaths have only gone up, and candidates brought a wide range of reasons and solutions to the table.

Andy Rougeot blamed the problem on drunk drivers and people running red lights, and said he would add 400 police officers and grow police funding to enforce traffic laws.

Lisa Calderón and Kwame Spearman called out traffic deaths as an equity issue, focusing on how historically marginalized communities often have worse and more dangerous infrastructure. Spearman said the answer comes from looking at the city neighborhood by neighborhood to find the best solutions.

"It should not be, you take your life into your hands when you're trying to cross the street to go to school, whatever your method," Calderón said. "We need to prioritize those areas that have been historically disinvested."

A few candidates gave ideas for specific infrastructure and traffic policies they think would reduce deaths. Aurelio Martinez said the city should change how it builds bike lanes to improve car visibility, and Leslie Herod said she would put resources toward fixing intersections with poor visibility.

Ean Tafoya, Mike Johnston and Debbie Ortega all called for lower speeds and more protected bike lanes, while Ortega added that many neighborhoods still need basic infrastructure like curbs and sidewalks. Trinidad Rodriguez said he wanted to lower speeds and add red light and speeding cameras and police officers for enforcement. (City Council recently voted to lower speeds on residential streets to 20 miles per hour.)

Unlike some topics that often divide more along political lines, like public safety, candidates brought no shortage of potential ideas to address traffic safety. Terrance Roberts called for 24-hour public transportation and shared worries about cell phone use, Renate Behrens said she plans to make public transportation free, Al Gardner raised the idea of additional shuttles and James Walsh expressed support for more e-bikes. Thomas Wolf called for a culture change and better law enforcement.

And some candidates, like Kelly Brough and Robert Treta, said the city doesn't know yet what's causing the problem. Treta said Denver needs to take action on dangerous roadways before accidents occur, and should rely on citizen 311 reports to figure out where those problem areas are.

Brough called for a "full reset." "I would back it up, and really dig in to ask the question, why is it so bad?" she said.

A question about improving Union Station and access to public bathrooms quickly turned into a debate about homelessness, with candidates settling into their established positions.

Union Station often gets caught in the crosshairs of conversations about crime, drug use and homelessness, meanwhile advocates have long asked the city for more public amenities for people living on the streets. When asked about these issues, candidates went to talking points we've heard from them in previous forums about the urban camping ban, law enforcement and support services for people experiencing homelessness.

"If Union Station is our living room, then I don't want to see what our bedroom looks like," said Spearman, who was the only candidate to raise his hand and say that the station has enough bathrooms. "We have got to handle our homeless issue, and we are not doing it right now because we are not enforcing our laws."

Rodriguez reaffirmed his desire to involuntarily commit people for mental health and substance abuse treatment, and Rougeot again called for more police officers.

Tafoya, Herod, Martinez and Brough explicitly called for more public restroom access across the city. Herod added that she would create a Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) hub at Union Station, to respond to people in need without engaging police.

"We should care about what's going on down at Union Station and 16th Street Mall, we should absolutely make sure that people feel like it's an accessible place, and that it is clean and safe," Herod said. "But that does not mean that we have to push people out who need to use the bathroom."

Only a few candidates shared ideas to improve transportation specifically at the station. Wolf said the city should focus on connectivity to the bus stations. Ortega said Denver should promote musicians and entertainment in the station. "I think we need to keep the area activated," she said.

Topics like sidewalk repair and Peña Boulevard got attention for the first time.

Candidates agreed that the next mayor will need to put resources toward implementing Denver Deserves Sidewalks, the ballot initiative passed in 2022 that raises taxes on homeowners to repair and build sidewalks across the city.

Most candidates also agreed that Denver should move away from highway widenings. Last fall, the state rejected a plan to widen I-25, only a few years after widening I-70, a project that received criticism for its effect on minority, low-income communities. Now, officials are deciding whether and how to widen Peña Boulevard by the airport as development in the area and increasing airport traffic put more pressure on that highway. Critics of highway widenings often raise environmental concerns, and cite research that shows they often don't improve traffic or can even make traffic worse.

Roberts said he was against the I-70 and I-25 widenings, but that thinks Peña Boulevard is different.

"I'm really worried that if something bad happens in Green Valley Ranch, a lot of people will get stuck in this area, if you look at the traffic on I-70, if you look at the lack of bus services to this area right now," he said.

Rougeot also supported widening Peña Boulevard, calling traffic a "tax" on lower income people who have to travel farther. "If we are cutting off lanes of traffic, we are adding time that people are sitting there away from their families," he said. "It's unacceptable. We as a city need to expand our roads."

And one candidate, Martinez, called for not only turning down highway widenings, but condensing streets and decreasing traffic through Denver altogether.

Check out Denverite's voter guide here.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the year Denver Deserves Sidewalks passed and clarify the status of the Peña Boulevard project.

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