By KELLY GILFILLAN
Many business leaders and members of the Williamson County Chamber Board of Directors went on an exploratory trip to Denver, Colorado in September to discuss transportation solutions and overcoming growth challenges.
Personally, there were many uplifting and challenging moments but there was one particular transportation panel that seemed to be the most productive and conducive to solutions-oriented answers for our Middle Tennessee region.
Prior to this trip, I was part of the 2016-17 Leadership Middle Tennessee class where 40 area business people traveled to ten counties in ten months. What we learned time and again was that traffic is a problem everywhere, but it is a result of positive, exciting growth.
I hope you will take a minute and follow the links at the end of this article to hear what your local mayors think about the trip.
The extreme growth is one of the reasons I felt compelled to go to Denver seeking answers. On our first day, we flew into Denver, rode a light rail train into southern downtown Denver, walked through downtown and took public transportation buses to our hotel.
Granted, we had guidance and our chamber staff had prepared to walk us through the options. However, as I had previously experienced while exploring Europe, navigating was quite easy once you gave it a chance.
Later on in the first day, a Denver transportation dream team panel was interviewed by Williamson Inc. CEO Matt Largen. This panel included: Randy Pye, former mayor of Centennial, Colorado and now managing partner of FulcrumOne; Maria Garcia Berry, CEO and Founder of CRL Associates; Kelly Brough, CEO of Chamber of Commerce; and Buz Koelbel, President, Koelbel and Company.
What I prefer to accomplish with this article is for you to hear from them. I am transcribing most of what we heard because I believe they have answers our leaders need to hear. I recently heard former Nashville mayor Karl Dean say he took three different trips to Denver seeking answers. I encourage you to do your own research.
Our laws are different in Tennessee as are our particular problems, but it is the collaboration I hope you hear in their words. I hope it does not take us 15 years to get where we coordinate our regional efforts and another ten years to get moving. So many innovations are out there, but we must work together to make them a reality.
Pye was the first to be introduced at the Williamson Co. contingent.
“There was an aha moment in the region where we discovered we were gonna be going from 2.8 to 4.2 million by 2040 and that was just in the Denver region. So that aha moment grabbed CDOT and RTD (Regional Transportation District),” Pye said.
“In 1997, a couple of things happened. Most important Regional Transportation Districts were formed; Denver Regional Council of Governments,” he said. “With the Metro Vision Plan adopted, RTD looked at it and one tenet was we need to create a multimodal system of bus and rail of some kind, potentially a Light rail.”
“At the time our RTD board was dysfunctional with some public fights. The plan they put together was not fleshed out. It had bones but no meat. [The program] went down in flames because it was ‘give me your money and we’ll do this.’ They took a vote and it failed miserably,” he said.
“RTD went out to corridors to find out what [voters in] each corridor wanted and this became Fast Track plan. What is it you want to see? This is what we asked.”
Maria Garcia Berry, CEO and Founder of CRL Associates, started off with the bad and led into the good during the presentation.
“We got schlacht [in the first vote]. Two things transpired after the failure,” Berry said.
Berry discussed the immense amount of research the combined groups did with their money before they decided to move forward again. She would later reveal that the RTD invested $250,000 into voter research before developing their marketing campaign.
“How do you convince voters to buy this BIG thing? One of the things that RTD did with their own cash and their own bonding capacity… they put together their own Southwest line. It got used,” she said.
She also mentioned the unexpected turnout once the line was open.
“What really was a game changer was reigning in 12 miles into the depth of the suburbs toward Douglas County. The day the SW line opened, the proforma showed that 8,000 per day would show. Instead 18,000 showed up to the party,” she said.
“We really do have the appetite to do light rail and the burbs really do want light rail. So let’s start working through the mayor’s caucus and the Denver regional council of government then started addressing our needs,” Berry said.
In 1999, the voters of Colorado dealt with a quirky law that stated they could not borrow against the federal tax receipts for gas tax. This required a statewide vote.
At the same time, RTD asked for more bonding authority. The rapid transit is 13.2 miles along multiple jurisdictions and connects downtown Denver to Lone Tree.
“That was the galvanizing effort to really lay out the map,” Berry said. “Developers start saying, ‘hmmm, we can’t have a region of haves and have nots. We can’t have all the concentration going south and southwest. We need to think west, east, north,’” she said.
Berry expressed the particular way things had to line up in order for the vote to pass.
“I want to underscore that if it wasn’t for the fact that we had a running and operating line that came up on time and under budget and we also had the vote on the east line, we wouldn’t have had a successful vote,” she said.
Buz Koelbel, the President of Koelbel and Company discussed the Transportation Expansion (T-REX) Project. This project was a $1.67 billion venture that had a goal of transforming the way people in the metro Denver area commuted within the areas of Interstates 25 and 225, which was the country’s 14th busiest intersection.
“There were so many layers of organizations that it took to get it passed. The one you will see tomorrow is T-REX. There were nine or ten pots of secret sauce to make that happen,” Koelbel said.
One of the successes stemmed from the 25 years of experience breaking down political barriers with an organization that bridged all the jurisdictions. This organization was the Southeast Business Partnership.
“We got together once per month for 15 years and we decided that we should have a common goal and that we would compete later on to do the development,” Koelbel said. “But I think we understood, and this is a huge deal, that we could not get this done if we were not all aligned strategically. And to this day I believe this is one of the best organizations.”
Koelbel attended four lobbying trips to D.C. which typically had 15 to 18 people, equally representing the public and private sectors.This number included 2-3 mayors.
“The key was this organization broke down the jurisdictional lines that most often usually end up fighting amongst each other,” he said.
“We also had certain groups of people that only wanted transit or highway. We came up with the first true multi-modal project in the country and it became a model. And we did a design build project and then when we were 30% done at $1.6 billion, we would go through the whole RFP project, engage a contractor and get a value of the engineering.”
These were a series of things that had to happen to get this done.
Koelbel explained, “The reason the vote passed was the two biggest job centers were downtown and the whole southeast corridor. So we knew that if we could get that one passed, that would start the dominoes for the rest of the area.”
The key for regional success was to convince other jurisdictions to join in the regional mindset and for everyone to believe it would and should happen.
To hear from our local mayors regarding the Williamson Forward trip, use these links to research: