Transportation strategy short on funding
Here are some results from a non-scientific survey conducted for the state’s intermountain areas. The region covers Eagle, Lake, Summit and Garfield counties.
•What issues matter most to you?
Reducing congestion: 51 percent.
Increasing transit options: 39 percent.
• In light of limited funds... what should be the focus?
Offer more choices for travel (transit, bicycles and pedestrians): 51 percent.
Maintain the existing transportation system: 34 percent.
EAGLE COUNTY — A new airport interchange would be great, and Edwards residents would surely cheer a new roundabout at the intersection of U.S. Highway 6 and the Interstate 70 spur road. For now, though, the state-funded roads in the county will have to make do with small-scale improvements.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is currently at work on a statewide transportation plan that takes a look at the state’s needs out to 2040 — a mere 25 years in the future. Virtually every part of the state is covered, of course, including the state highways in the Vail Valley.
The problem is money. While the state’s transportation budget is in the range of $700 million to $800 million every year, most of that money goes toward simply maintaining the existing network. There are other pools of state, local and federal money, but the bottom line is that the bill for improvements runs into the tens of billions, with nowhere near enough revenue to pay for them.
Other than federal requirements, why pursue a long-term plan if there’s so little money available?
IMPORTANCE OF PLANNING
Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler is the town’s representative on the I-70 Coalition, a group of town and county governments along the highway corridor. Zemler said that group is focused more on the near term.
“But a long-term plan starts to set the stage for how we proceed in the future,” Zemler said.
David Eller, the transportation manager for the department of transportation’s Region 3, which is much of the Western Slope, agreed with the need to get as much planning in hand as possible.
That advanced planning, along with other funding partners, helped move Eagle County to the front of the line when the Edwards I-70 interchange project began in 2010. That project was fully designed, requiring little more than hiring contractors.
The Edwards plan was initially supposed to include the intersection near the Gashouse restaurant, but there wasn’t enough money, and the project hadn’t been fully designed yet.
Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan said there’s money available to pick a preferred alternative for the intersection — a roundabout may not be the top choice — and then get the design work started.
“That’s the way the game is played,” Ryan said, adding that ready-to-go projects are most likely to be funded by the state.
But the state’s transportation funding picture won’t improve for the foreseeable future. The transportation department doesn’t receive any money from the state’s general fund. Most of the money comes from the state’s fuel taxes, as well as a recent increase in auto registration fees. Money for specific projects can come from federal sources, and communities often contribute to project costs.
The I-70 underpass in Vail being planned now is a good example. The state provided $14.8 million for the estimated $20 million project, with the town providing the remainder. The just-completed roundabout project in Eagle is another example, with the town and county contributing.
But the gas tax is quickly becoming an anachronism.
Just after parking her Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid, department of transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said that the state’s gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1991. And, while the state’s human and vehicular populations have grown significantly in the past 25 years, gas tax revenues haven’t kept pace, in large part because more efficient vehicles use less fuel while in many cases driving just as many miles as more gas-hungry vehicles once did.
“The gas tax may actually be a dying thing,” Ford said.
That’s why state transportation officials are looking at alternatives. One alternative, which will probably be the subject of a test project in the next year or so, is finding a way to charge highway users for the miles they drive. Oregon is already experimenting with a pay-as-you-drive system.
Ford said there’s a lot to consider with any such system, including privacy, and fairness between rural and urban residents.
Until then, though, plans like a third lane on eastbound I-70 up Vail Pass will be in a kind of limbo — waiting for planning, and then waiting for money.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com or @scottnmiller.