There’s little doubt that Colorado’s transportation albatross, I-70, is having an economic impact. The only question is, how much? The stretch from Denver to Dillon now bedevils motorists in summer and winter. A drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel east to Denver on a Sunday morning in mid-June can be as frustrating as a journey home during peak ski season.
Businesses we've interviewed are taking note, as are the cities and states competing with Colorado for a new crop of industry players who value lifestyle, one free of a three-hour commute to and from the mountains. Several million more residents are certain to call the state home in the coming decades. More lanes of traffic is the one solution parties agree on. Is this the bold thinking that will not only alleviate the issue long term but ease concern for those considering Colorado? It’s hard to see. I-70 will continue to be a troublesome transportation narrative for the state.
Two of Colorado’s other major economic development challenges - water (always water) and higher education - are no easier and impact business more.
The state’s college and university system is a jewel, but as we’ve chronicled extensively the past year, a skills gap now weighs heavily on the higher-ed brand: industry believes a high-percentage of graduates aren't qualified. For manufacturers, a credibility gap with higher-ed has developed. Industry and education are working to realign but major change at area colleges and universities seems inevitable. At what impact to industry?
We’ll be reminded again this December of the divisiveness of the region’s biggest long-term development challenge - water. Governor Hickenlooper’s administration is set to release the state’s first-ever water plan, a roadmap for future development. One is sorely needed. It’s impossible to imagine that current users will be able to meet forecast needs without a new forward-thinking model. Colorado’s fractured, every-community-for-itself, water ecosystem is broken.
Water professionals would disagree but almost certainly stakeholders in the process will claim the plan goes too far, or in the case of business and industry, doesn’t go far enough. The sticking point will likely be the one issue that divides the state more than any other – how to manage the state’s significant undeveloped Colorado River allocation, the only large untapped supply option left on the table.
Colorado’s never come close to using its allotted share as outlined in the Colorado River Compact. Will the Governor’s plan finally build consensus, or outline a clear path to agreement on this singular issue? Any statewide agreement on developing more water from the River will require nuanced diplomacy (another special legislative session?) or huge concessions from Colorado’s western slope, and officials in Aspen, Grand Junction, and others have famously drawn a line in the sand. Gov. Hickenlooper has scheduled release of the water plan after the election in November. Maybe it’s an indication he anticipates a battle.
Colorado’s business community deserves a full-throated discussion of the major economic development issues that shape the region’s future. Fracking, gun-control, and business regulation may glean more headlines, but beyond the election, business requires a plan to address its big issues.