Legislation to steer billions of dollars into transportation made a grand entrance in the rotunda of the state Capitol just before evening rush hour Tuesday.
The bill will put higher fees on gas, while putting a state surcharge on deliveries and shared rides, as well as fees that put what electric vehicles pay on par with their combustion counterparts.
That sounds like a good deal to Gov. Jared Polis, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver. They took turns endorsing the proposal, which would not need voter approval, since it technically isn’t a tax covered by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
The lack of funding has put roads, bridges and mass transit far behind the state's remarkable growth. Polis said that's about to change.
"No more U-turns, no more detours, it’s time for action to fix our roads and our transportation infrastructure,” he said in the rotunda outside his office.
Hancock said the legislature was "going big," creating jobs, investing in communities and help local businesses regaining ground from the pandemic. He said mayors are hoping the legislation moves through the Capitol swiftly.
"The impact this transportation bill will have is immense," he said. "We've been waiting for this for years."
Suthers said as a conservative Republican he's not a fan of everything going on at the Democratic-led statehouse, he's been a critic of the legislature for failing to invest in transportation and yet he's opposed sales tax increases. Those who use the roads should share the cost, Suthers contends, which is what the bill proposes.
"Colorado must move forward to invest in its transportation infrastructure, and this is the best, most collaborative effort that I've seen to do so," he said.
He added, "While I personally would prefer a greater contribution from the general fund (budget) and more money into road construction and less into multimodal, I'm a political realist and I understand political compromise, and "I don't see a better package coming from the legislature or the voters coming anytime soon."
The mayors and lawmakers were flanked by Mike Kopp, chairman of the transportation advocacy coalition A Way Forward and the president and CEO of Colorado Concern, as well as Kelly Brough, the president and CEO of Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Leaders said it’s the latest, best chance to handle the traffic that accompanies future growth and the needs the legislature has failed to pay for in the past.
Sage Naumann, the spokesman for the Senate Republicans, called the bill one of the most ridiculous pieces of legislation he's seen.
"It ignores the will of voters, grossly expands the bureaucracy, imposes fees on Coloradans during an economic crisis, and is chalked (sic) full of pet projects," he said. "It’s 190 pages of lecturing Coloradans about how they haven’t paid their fair share as Democrats have spent years ignoring our crumbling roads and bridges.”
The goal — one lawmakers haven't been able to reach for a decade — would create a sustained source of income to support Colorado's long underfunded transportation system.
The fees listed in the bill last week included:
- A road usage fee that would ratchet up annually over 10 years to maximum of 8 cents.
- 3.5 cents per prearranged ride in a zero-emission vehicle and 7.5 cents for every other vehicle.
- 6.9 cents for retail deliveries.
- 5.3 cents for each delivery to support a fund to transition government fleets to electric vehicles.
- Raising the $50 registration fee for electric vehicles with an index that makes EVs equitable to what combustion vehicles pay.
- Indexing the current $2 fee per day on vehicle rentals to inflation, exempting car-sharing programs.
- Changing the Statewide Bridge Enterprise to the Statewide Bridge and Tunnel Enterprise, and authorizing its board to impose a fee on diesel and deliveries.
During Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration, the backlog was valued at about $9 billion in the coming decade.
"For the first time we're introducing something that isn't just a Band-Aid, but instead a real framework to future-proof our transportation system," said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder. "This is a big deal.
"This means shovels in the ground to make long-overdue improvements to our roads and our highways."
Last year, Polis announced an aggressive 10-year plan to address major needs, but funding remains the question.
Fenberg is sponsoring the bill with House Speaker Alec Garnett, Senate Transportation Committee chair Faith Winter and Rep. Matt Gray, as well as Republican Sen. Kevin Priola.
"We've been underfunding our transportation for decades, and we're all paying for it," Fenberg said Tuesday morning, referencing time and fuel spent in traffic jams, as well as maintenance caused by shoddy roads.
He said the state already depends on fees in the form of the gas tax.
"The way we're doing it now clearly doesn't work," Fenberg said.
Anti-tax groups are expected to oppose the bill as a backdoor tax.
“As we have always said, we’re not going to stand back and allow lawmakers to continue to advance the gas tax against the will of the voters," Jesse Mallory, the state director of Americans for Prosperity, said Tuesday. "It is unconscionable that our lawmakers could even think of moving forward with all the negative feedback they have received with only weeks left in the session to spare. Coloradans, their families, and their businesses cannot possibly shoulder another financial burden after the pandemic. If our lawmakers can’t carry out the duties of their position and hold themselves accountable to voters, then we will — plain and simple.”
As it stands now, transportation depends overwhelmingly on a 22-cent gas tax that hasn't gone up in almost 30 years. As people drive less and cars go electric, the income only dwindles.
The proposed transportation bill would tap those who drive electric vehicles, share rides and depend on deliveries, all of which put strain on the roads.
The new costs will adjust for inflation to keep Colorado out of future jams. Fenberg said if the 22-cent gas tax had adjusted for inflation over the years, it would now be 44 cents.
“This bill provides more transportation options and relief for Colorado drivers,” Tony Milo, vice chair of the transportation advocacy group A Way Forward and executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, said Tuesday morning. “Not only does this improve the quality of life for Colorado’s families, but the projects funded by this legislation will ignite an economic recovery in Colorado, which we badly need after the pandemic.”
Sandra Hagen Solin of the transportation coalition Fix Colorado Roads said her group hopes to see the bill improved during the legislative process.
"Upon a thorough review of the measure, we have a number of concerns with elements of measure as it will be introduced," she said. "We have reserved taking an official position until our board meets on Thursday and are eager to continue our work with the bill sponsors to address policy elements that could have broad economic implications and make addressing our congestion challenges more difficult."
Time is an issue, as the legislative session is three-quarters finished. Though Democrats have the majorities necessary to get the bill to the governor's desk, they don't have a lot of time on the legislative calendar, without speeding things up.
Fenberg said he hoped to have the bill in its first committee next week. Senate President Leroy Garcia said he plans to end the pandemic-interrupted legislative session on May 28.
"It's not going to be moved at an incredibly fast pace, but we're obviously looking at the clock and hoping to get this done by the end of the month," Fenberg said.