Proposed ballot measures to take crack at fixing Colorado roads, highways | VailDaily.com

Proposed ballot measures to take crack at fixing Colorado roads, highways

Scott Franz
Steamboat Today
and Trevor Reid
Greeley Tribune

Mid-day traffic flows through East Vail at mile marker 188. In response to failed legislative attempts, a total of eight ballot initiatives have been filed by two different organizations to raise funds for critical transportation projects.

Though the Colorado Legislature failed to find a compromise to properly fund fixing the state's roads and highways, voters might have another opportunity to greenlight transit projects come November.

Failed legislation

Eagle County State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush was one of the key proponents of legislation asking voters to raise the state sales tax for transportation funding. House Bill 1242 would have specifically sought voter approval to increase the sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.4 percent to secure a $3.5 billion bond for transportation infrastructure.

The bill passed the house, but it went down after three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee voted against it and refused to advance it to a vote of the full Senate.

Noticing the dissatisfaction with House Bill 1242's tax increase, Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, worked with Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, to craft Senate Bill 303. The bill would have authorized CDOT to issue transportation revenue anticipation notes, or TRANs, as well as using a specific ownership tax for vehicles in the 2010-24 model year range.

Unfortunately, Cooke and Neville's bill was introduced late in the session. The bill didn't reach the floor for second readings until the second to last day.

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"Once that happens, there's no way that it could have (passed) — even if (the legislature wanted it) to pass, it couldn't because of the time delay," Cooke said.

Lawmakers did secure $1.9 billion in transportation funding throughout the next 20 years by raising vehicle registration fees, but Mitsch Bush said she doesn't think it's nearly enough.

"It certainly doesn't cover our needs, and we have $9 billion in needs," she said.

'Cutting through the bone'

In response to the failed legislative attempts, a total of eight ballot initiatives have been filed by two different organizations, each hoping to get something to voters in November.

The Colorado Contractors Association has filed six ballot measures that would increase taxes to generate the revenue for transportation funding. The measures, awaiting Supreme Court action, are similar to House Bill 1242, which didn't gain much support among Republicans.

Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Denver, has filed two ballot measures — one that seeks the estimated $3.5 billion to fund CDOT's Tier 1 priority list and a similar bill for a slimmer $2.5 billion. The think tank has completed the titling phase for the measures and has started raising funds for petitioning.

Similar to Senate Bill 303, funding for the road work would come from the issuance of TRANs. Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, said the group doesn't take proposing such a debt package lightly.

"I feel that politically, this is the only way to get everybody on the same team to move forward and start fixing our roads," Caldara said. "I'm tired of our legislators not prioritizing this core function of government. … The money is there, and we just need to go ahead and build it."

But State Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, said the shortfall in transportation funding is not because of an inability to prioritize. Young, who serves on the legislature's Joint Budget Committee, said the money simply isn't there.

"We've been prioritizing, and we've been cutting in many areas. We're down to the point where we're not just cutting to the bone, in some cases we're cutting through the bone," he said.

Mitsch Bush said she also took issue with some comments she heard from opponents of the bipartisan sales tax bill who argued the state hadn't yet explored all of the options to solve the issue.

"We have been exploring options since at least 2007," Mitsch Bush said. "We have explored all the options, and there just is no money."

'Crisis' status

Mitsch Bush said transportation funding has been labeled as a "crisis" for the state now for a decade.

"I think our future is at risk if we don't stop kicking the can down the road and fund 21st century transportation infrastructure," she said.

State Transportation Commission Chairwoman Kathy Connell shared Mitsch Bush's dismay over the lack of progress on the transportation funding question.

"We're very sad, because Colorado has got a big problem," Connell said of state transportation leaders.

Cooke said if voters don't act on the ballot to fix Colorado's roads, then they should expect to see something like Senate Bill 303 in the next session.

"I think we are going to look at it early on in the session and try to get it introduced a lot earlier than what it was this year," he said.

The bill specified where the transportation funding should go using CDOT's Tier 1 priority list. That includes fixes to the U.S. Highway 34 and U.S. Highway 85 interchange, adding lanes to Interstate 25 and reconstruction on Interstate 76. Caldara pointed out that the Independence Institute's ballot measures also use the CDOT Tier 1 list.

"I think voters need to know what they're going to be buying if they pass anything," he said.

CDOT Tier 1 priority list

The Colorado Department of Transportation has a 10-Year Development Program to identify the major investment needs over the next 10 years. The program includes about 70 projects, with an overall price tag of about $2.5 billion. The department identifies these projects as having Tier 1 funding needs. Projects include fixes to Interstate 76, Insterstate 25 and U.S. 85 corridor improvements.

A full list can be found here.