Little simultaneously unites and divides Coloradans like the highways, specifically how to fix an outdated, overcrowded system that elected leaders have wrecked with inaction for more than a decade.
And these days, ahead of the next legislative session in January, leaders seem farther apart than ever.
While Colorado’s economy booms and its population swells, the state is way behind on paying for the transportation needs that would adequately accompany such growth. That’s why you get stuck in traffic jams daily on Interstate 25 on the Front Range, and wind through chokepoints on I-70 through the high country.
Time is money for the transport and tourism industries, and giant pain the neck for everybody else.
Get used to paying, unless the Legislature finds a way to pick up the tab.
Voters aren’t helping. They’ve rejected two ballot initiatives last year to pump billions of tax dollars into roads and bridges, one that required a hike on sales and one that tapped the existing state budget.
Last month, voters handily defeated Proposition CC, which would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and schools by letting the government keep occasional windfalls granted by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Voters, instead, said no to giving up their refunds, which are triggered when the state collects more in taxes than allowed by a spending cap in the state constitution.
“It’s always wonderful to know what the voters don’t want to do,” Gov. Jared Polis said after the demise of Proposition CC last month. “But we also have to figure out what it is they want to do.”
Now Colorado legislators must decide whether to risk putting another ballot measure on transportation dollars before voters next year. Voters would be asked permission for the state to borrow more than $2.3 billion to be paid back with money lawmakers set aside in 2018.
Paying for transportation is a steep, curvy route ahead. Polis is figuratively saying all aboard.
Polis told the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance last month that the region would see benefits from the extra $625 million he hopes the Legislature will budget for the Colorado Department of Transportation next year, on top of the $300 million he approved in the current state budget.
The source of that money pre-dates Polis.
In 2017, Senate Bill 267 authorized $1.8 billion in long-term bonds for transportation backed by leases on government buildings. On top of that, the state budget is required to pitch in $50 million a year. A quarter of the money is designated for counties with a population of 50,000 or less, and 10% is earmarked for transit.
Last year Senate Bill 1 directed put $495 million into roads, bridges and alternative transportation in 2018, $150 million this year.
The legislation also allows the state to ask voters in November for permission to borrow $2.3 billion to be repaid over the next 20 years. If voters approve the bonds, the state highway fund would see $92.5 million a year between 2021 and 2040.
The North Interstate 25 corridor, home to booming commerce and population growth, stands to gain about $1 billion.
The Metro Mayors Association and other metro Denver politicos are talking informally about regional partnerships and local tax efforts, effectively giving up on a statewide solution, given recent history. The idea isn’t widely embraced, yet, though the call gets louder with the death of each ballot measure for a statewide solution.
Former House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a leading Colorado Democrat, frequently made the case that solving major transportation issues piecemeal would create bottlenecks and a patchwork of haves and have-nots, widening a gulf between communities that can and do pass taxes and build projects, and those that can’t.
That’s more ammunition in the perceived “war on rural Colorado.”
“The potholes that exist in this state don’t have an R or a D next to their name,” Duran, a Democrat from Denver, said on the House floor in 2017, when she tried and failed to pass a statewide transportation bill with Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Canon City.
House Bill 1242, which would have asked voters to approve a hike in the state sales tax, passed in the House and died in a Republican-led Senate committee two years ago.
Duran concluded two years ago, “People from across Colorado, organizations that are progressive and conservative, local leaders, Republicans and Democrats are saying that now is the time to come up with a transportation solution.”
House Democrats alleged then that almost half of the state’s bridges needed preventive maintenance and four-fifths of the highways are in need of significant repairs or major reconstruction in the next 10 years.
Fix Colorado Roads, a coalition of business groups, also takes a dim view of a piecemeal strategy.
“A selfish approach, it only serves to balkanize our state further by creating winners and losers furthering the rural and urban divide that persists in Colorado,” spokeswoman Sandra Hagen Solin called it in her address to the Issues Summit in Loveland.
“We know a regional approach is politically expedient and it has a place. In fact, the Northern Colorado region considered it 12 years ago. As a part of a larger statewide solution, perhaps. On its own, it has irreparable consequences. We haven’t yet exhausted our options for a statewide solution.”
It remains to be seen whether lawmakers in the four-month session that begins in January will have their minds on long-range funding to loosen up current and future traffic jams, or keep their focus on cleaner, greener vehicles and transit.
Moreover, lawmakers have been generous and the voters haven’t.
The joint Transportation Legislation Review Committee, a bipartisan, bicameral study committee, recommended five bills last month.
Most significantly, the committee is recommending a new color scheme for the state license plate.
Sometime after Jan. 1, 2021, once the current stock sells out, official plates would have white letters and numbers over dark green mountains and a white sky, the opposite of the current plate. The bill passed the committee without objection.
The Legislature also might beef up the reporting requirements on public-private partnerships, and create a grant program to offer driver’s ed to kids in foster care, according to proposed legislation voted out of the committee.
Though it did not act on the issue, the committee heard a report on an idea to pay for transportation that’s been kicked around Colorado and other states the past few years: Road usage charges.
Such charges are a pay-as-you-go proposal. People would hook a device to their vehicle and pay a charge rather than a tax at the gas pump.
Colorado’s core problem is that it pays for roads and bridges with gas taxes — 22 cents a gallon of gas and 20 cents per gallon of diesel fuel — hasn’t increased since 1992.
Meanwhile, construction has gotten way more expensive, and vehicles have gotten way more efficient. As electric vehicles increase, fuel taxes are a dying light as a revenue source. Many states have passed transportation sales taxes, but Colorado voters steadfastly refuse.
If the state repealed its gas tax, drivers instead would pay a road usage charge, and the fee could be adjusted for scenic or congested roads. The broader concept is similar to a toll road.
Several states are studying it, but only Oregon and Utah have jumped in so far.
Oregon charges 1.7 cents per mile if participating drivers plug a small device into their vehicle’s data port to keep track of the number of miles driven and fuel consumption.
In a vehicle that gets 20 mpg, drivers break even, given the 34-cent tax on gas. Since the Oregon program started in 2015, volunteers have installed the device in their vehicle, which deducts what they paid at the pump in taxes and applies it to their road-usage charge. The fee also can be applied to eclectic vehicles, which are paying little or nothing to use Colorado’s roads now, which are funded almost entirely with gas taxes.
“The system is going to enable us to maintain and improve Oregon’s infrastructure in the face of growing fuel efficiencies,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said at the bill signing to expand the program in June.
In August, Colorado lawmakers who study transportation legislation reviewed a white paper on raising vehicle registration fees for the first time in a decade, but the committee did not formally propose a hike.
Last session Senate Bill 239 also instructed CDOT to talk to stakeholders and issue a report to the legislature about the potential for fees on commercial motor vehicles to “generate sufficient revenue for the state and local governments to mitigate specified impacts to the transportation system.”
The resulting bill would suggest incentives for carriers who go green.
The Polis plan
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is a progressive Democrat, but he’s also a libertarian-minded pragmatist.
He was politically strutting his stuff in Loveland about the big bucks the state is sinking in the highway system, as he noodles with his own vision for what getting around will look like in the decades ahead.
But the governor was also square with the crowd about the state’s difficulties in paying for transportation as the state grows and when the economy cools.
At that point, funding for roads from the state’s operating budget will be “devastated,” he said, as the shrinking pile of tax revenue is obligated to other public needs.
“We do the most with what we have every day, but if there’s anything long-term in meeting the transportation needs of the state, there needs to be some bonding and capital mechanism,” Polis said in Loveland.
The Department of Transportation hasn’t yet rolled out his long-term plan for transportation. The agency held a listening tour across the state this summer and fall, and they’re incorporating what CDOT gleaned from the comments.
The question in the balance is whether significant new dollars flow into expanding existing clogged routes on the major corridors, or more into alternative-fuel vehicles and mass transit than bigger, broader highways.
Polis has talked about his fondness for the idea of commuter rail that stretches the length of the Front Range, and the state is investing ample resources in looking at the proposal. A plan to pay for it is not yet in the public light, however.
Moreover, Republicans aren’t yet making moves behind the scenes to indicate who could seriously challenge Polis — a wealthy individual whose money squeezed out another wealthy individual, Walker Stapleton, in last year’s election — for his re-election in 2022.
If the state continues to trend left, Polis would have eight years to leave his footprint on how Colorado gets around.
Polis’ support for bonding is significant for those holding out hope for a stronger investment in a system that could fall $20 billion behind population growth in the next two decades, the Hickenlooper administration surmised.
“It really is an important mechanism to bring about as much money as possible into the system,” said Fix Colorado Roads’ Solin, one of the organizers of the issues summit in Loveland for a coalition of Northern Colorado chambers of commerce and economic developers.
“Financing and his appreciation for bonding is really tremendous.”
She also said, “We will stand with the GOP in demanding more from the General Fund, and we will demand action on new finance tools to deliver large scale projects and regionally significant state highway projects across the state that are currently languishing on that $9 billion project list.
“We agree with the governor. Bonding is the right approach to address today’s infrastructure challenges shortfalls today.”
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