DENVER (AP) – When Colorado lawmakers convened for this year’s legislative session, both parties declared the improvement of the state’s 1950s-designed road network a top priority. Four months later and facing a midnight Wednesday deadline to pass legislation, they’ve yet to deliver.
The Democrat-led House passed a complicated plan to direct more state revenue to transportation – as much as $700 million over the next five years. The Republican-led Senate passed a last-minute bill that could issue $3.5 billion in bonds to fund road construction.
Neither has been taken up by the opposite chamber, and truckers, commuters and chambers of commerce are frustrated with the standstill.
“We can ill afford to have this delayed any further,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. Fulton estimates his association’s trucking members lose $1 million every day in the metropolitan area because of traffic delays and equipment repairs made necessary by poor roads.
Overall, the Colorado Department of Transportation says it needs $1 billion more every year to maintain and build roads to meet the needs of more than 7.3 million residents by 2040. It devotes most of its $1.4 billion budget to maintenance.
Voters haven’t increased the 22-cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax in more than 20 years. It and the federal gas tax provide more than half CDOT’s revenue.
Republicans favor bonding, not new taxes, to pay for critically needed road improvements. They note that Colorado’s last major highway improvements, including the Denver-area T-Rex project, were paid for by bonds. Their bill would ask voters to approve the new bonds.
Democratic House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst insists there’s not enough revenue to back new bonds, which would require up to $5.5 billion over 20 years. She wants to boost spending by removing a multimillion-dollar Medicaid fee from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR.
TABOR requires refunds whenever total state income surpasses a cap that’s based on inflation and population. Removing the fee from its umbrella would free more money for roads. Republicans say TABOR requires voter approval of Hullinghorst’s plan. She disagrees, but Democrats remember voters’ overwhelming rejection of a Democrat-backed tax hike for education in 2013.
Republican Sen. Randy Baumgartner’s bonding bill includes widening of Interstates 70 and 25 in metro Denver and beyond, as well as U.S. Highway 50 near Pueblo.
“It’s not the be all and end all, but it’s a good first step in showing the people of Colorado that we’re concerned and listening to them,” Baumgartner said.
Democrats objected when GOP lawmakers stripped the bill of funds for mass transit and non-highway projects such as park-and-ride lots. Baumgartner said Monday he’d be open to having some of those projects restored if and when his bill is introduced in the House.
Business leaders back both bills while insisting Colorado must find long-term funding. Without improvements, in 2030 it will take three hours – compared to 80 minutes today – to make the 60-mile commute from Fort Collins to Denver, warned David May, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce.
“The fear is that, without new revenue, the system will continue to die slowly until it kills Colorado’s economy,” said Joe Kiley, a vice president for the Ports to Plains trade alliance.
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