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At a stand-still

Lauren Glendenning

When Colorado Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, proposed a $5 toll for Interstate 70 earlier this year, he met some serious opposition ” the bill never made it further than the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bill failed, but it did bring I-70’s congestion problems back into the spotlight. The interstate ” the main east-west corridor through the mountains ” is just one of the sections of highway in the state suffering from wear, tear and congestion.

But local elected officials say it’s just not a state priority, which was evident during discussions about McElhany’s toll bill.

“We didn’t get so much as a phone call to see what (the mountain communities) thought of the toll,” says Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon, who is also vice-chair of the I-70 Coalition, a group that formed in 2004 to brainstorm improvements along I-70. “We need to get our political power base re-energized down at the state capitol.”

About 40 percent of the state’s roads are in poor condition, and there are 116 structurally deficient bridges, according to Gov. Bill Ritter’s Blue Ribbon Panel, a group that spent most of 2007 studying the state’s transportation needs. And with a $65 billion statewide budget shortfall for transportation ” and that’s just for fixing and maintaining what we already have ” the idea of making that trip to the mountains safer and quicker seems light years away.

The majority of the money the state needs to make up for the shortfall won’t even be available until voters give their approval ” Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, restricts government from raising taxes on its own. The question becomes whether voters are willing to pay for transportation problems the state says are getting too large to ignore, and if they are, will it be enough?

There are at least 15 ongoing studies about future transportation methods being done around the state. Ten other studies were just completed, and several more are in the planning stages.

While it might seem like all the taxpayers are paying for are studies, transportation officials and legislators are optimistic it will all be put to good use soon.

Florine Raitano, director of the I-70 Coalition, says the group is using a $400,000 grant from Colorado Department of Transportation to study the land-use regulations in mountain communities. The group contributed $100,000 toward the study and expects to finish it by February 2009.

The goal of the study is to make sure none of the mountain communities along I-70 have zoning laws that would prevent some of the transit options from being built, specifically rail. If rail is the preferred option ” whether it’s a monorail, light-rail, an elevated train or some other technology ” it means there’s a need for rail stations within the towns to let people off.

The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority is conducting yet another study on the feasibility of a high-speed rail system along I-70 and I-25, and CDOT has been working on the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, since 2000. The environmental impact statement is an overall agreement for what the transportation system should look like along I-70, from Glenwood Springs to C-470 in Denver. The final version won’t be created until the I-70 Mountain Corridor Collaborative Effort ” a group formed last November as an element of the PEIS that includes local governments along I-70, highway drivers, transit, environmental, business, recreation, state and federal agencies ” agrees on alternative transportation for I-70. The group hopes to have an agreement on what those alternatives should be by May 29, says Jeff Kullman, a CDOT regional director.

“It will include both transit and highway improvements,” he says. “The nice thing about this study is that it requires some identification of how to do it fiscally, but it doesn’t require you to have every dollar to proceed.”

One thing that should come out of all of the studies is whether a mass transit system, such as a monorail, through some of the country’s most rugged terrain is even feasible. The coalition and the mountain corridor collaborative aren’t focusing on any particular technology until all the studying is finished, but both groups think mass transit can be done in some form.

“That’s the only way we’re going to do any sort of global solution,” Runyon says.

Kullman says truck traffic on I-70 is going to double in the next 20 years, so widening the highway is kind of a necessary evil. People argue that adding more lanes won’t solve anything ” that the highway will be just as crowded when the widening is finished, Kullman says.

But one thing everyone agrees on is that widening I-70, though necessary in critical areas ” around Georgetown, the bottom of Floyd Hill and the west side of the twin tunnels at Idaho Springs ” isn’t going to solve much.

“Widening I-70 to six lanes, if it was started tomorrow, would be obsolete in 15 years,” says State Sen. Dan Gibbs, who sits on the transportation committee and represents Summit, Gilpin, Boulder, Cleer Creek, Grand and Jefferson counties.

Westerners may not be as eager to ditch their cars for a train ride as those in densely populated areas on the East Coast, but the time will come, coalition members say.

“The world is changing; transportation is changing,” Runyon says. “With $120-plus per barrel of oil, we suddenly have to say, ‘Hmm, maybe I can take a train.'”

While the technology is still being examined, the groups involved with I-70 transportation planning know that whatever it is, it’s going to have to be able to survive the tough mountain elements, travel fast and accommodate a lot of people and their recreation equipment.

Patrick Donegan, a Denver resident who drives to the mountains about three weekends per month, says he might hop on a train, but not every time. He sees a problem with lugging his recreation gear onto the train, but more importantly, he doesn’t see how he’d have access to certain trailheads or backcountry spots once the train let him off.

“But if you’re going to go to Vail or Breckenridge on a Saturday and you get off right there (in town), it would make a ton of sense,” he says.

Regardless of how we solve I-70’s congestion, money is going to be an issue.

CDOT’s budget is already $300 million short this fiscal year because there is less revenue coming in from things like the gas tax, Kullman says. More fuel-efficient cars on the road might be better for the environment and for people’s wallets, but it isn’t helping the state raise money.

When asked whether the federal government might come to the rescue, Kullman wasn’t too optimistic. Mass transit from Denver to the mountains might sound like a great plan for Coloradans who love mountain recreation, but to the federal government, it’s small potatoes, he says.

The federal government doesn’t have a lot of transportation money as it is, and if it’s going to throw money into a mass transit system it would be in places like the Los Angeles-Las Vegas or the Miami-Orlando corridors, he says.

“It takes people, lots of people, to make transit an attractive investment (to the feds),” Kullman says. “The dilemma this corridor is faced with is that it takes a moderately large metropolitan area and connects it frankly to nothing.”

That’s why the state needs to make its own arrangements and raise its own funds.

The Blue Ribbon Panel recommended the state raise $1.5 billion annually to adequately fund transportation. In their proposal, the money would come from a combination of increases in car registration fees, the gas tax, sales and use tax, severance tax (the money paid when natural resources are removed from the ground) and a new daily visitor fee that would charge $6 a day for car rentals and hotel stays.

The Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, which Colorado voters passed in 1992, means that voters have the final say in whether the state government can increase taxes or take on additional debt. TABOR limits the amount of tax revenue raised by local and state governments, meaning annual tax increases can’t exceed the combined rate of population growth and inflation without voter approval.

Since the revenue needed exceeds that criteria, the only increases the state could make without voter approval would be to the visitor and registrations fees. And if the preferred option is to build a $9 billion mass transit system from Denver’s C-470 to the Eagle County Airport, the $1.5 billion a year wouldn’t cover it all.

So the question becomes whether Colorado taxpayers can be convinced to cough up the extra dough to maintain and improve the roads they drive on every day.

“We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us,” Raitano says. “(Tax increases) are something you’ve got to do if you’re going to play this game.”

The increase in taxes would be an investment into the transportation of the 21st century, she says. The state’s system has been under-funded for years and it’s time to step up, she says.

But with gas prices at record levels, are taxpayers ready to add on even more to their dwindling budgets?

Alison Reuter, a 26-year-old skier who drives to the mountains several times a week both for work and recreation, laughs at the idea. She says the only reason she can afford to drive up from Denver as often as she does is because her employer reimburses her for her mileage.

Gibbs says lawmakers need to be careful about how they present a tax increase to voters. It can’t just be about I-70 or just a gas tax increase.

“I think we need to look at transportation as a whole state,” he says. “In Colorado right now, how we structure fees is not going to cut it.”

Gibbs and Eagle County’s representative in the state House, Rep. Christine Scanlan, both opposed the $5 toll proposal. For one, the bill was against the law because an existing state law prohibits tolling existing lanes, Gibbs says. The bill also didn’t give voters any details about how the money generated from the tolls would be spent.

“I think taxpayers deserve better,” he says. “A $5 toll heading westbound ” I think folks would think twice about heading to Eagle County. I don’t think we need to look for ways to disincentivize folks from heading to the mountains.”

Tolling should be an important “tool in the toolbox,” Gibbs says, but it isn’t the only answer. Scanlan called the toll proposal a “Band-Aid fix” that doesn’t address the real problem. She says taxpayers and voters need to see how the extra money relates to them.

“You can’t just say we need another $1 billion,” Scanlan says. “You have to make it real for people and translate it into something meaningful or relevant ” if we raise your taxes x amount of dollars it will go to address this (specific) road and bridge in your county.”

Donegan, like Denver commuter Reuter, isn’t open to raising the gas tax specifically, but says he’d be open to other tax increases to help pay for transit.

In the meantime, while all of the studies and the sea of brake lights continue, the government agencies are eventually going to have to ask the voters how to pay for the problems. If we can’t decide to pay for maintaining what we already have, building a multi-billion dollar transit system to the mountains just won’t be possible, nor will it be a priority.

From legislators to transportation officials, everyone pretty much agrees something has to start happening ” something beyond more studies ” within the next 18 months.

“As a statewide community, we have to look into our hearts,” Runyon says. “Are we going to let our basic roads and infrastructure deteriorate? In the process we’re going to shoot ourselves.”

Lauren Glendenning can be reached for comment at 970.748.2983 or Lglendenning@vailtrail.com.


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