Gov. Jared Polis told a collection of business interests and advocates Tuesday that if Colorado's transportation problems were easy, they would have already been fixed, but he's ready to consider some new tools.
The transportation coalition A Way Forward staged an online summit to talk about how to unstick the state's long-stuck problems with paying for transportation. Solutions typically bog down in competing interests that have left Colorado's roads and bridges a decade and billions of dollars in investments behind.
The coalition of planners, lobbyists, economic interests and legislators hope to get something to the governor's desk this year to provide a consistent means of paying the transportation tab, rather than the occasional largesse and a dwindling gas tax they rely on now.
Polis said the state's growth and a vibrant economy are a good problem to have, but it has its side effects.
"For too long Colorado has just been tolerating all of these pain points that have building up in transportation," he said of congestion.
The backlog, though, threatens to stall out the state's economic progress and hurt Colorado's quality of life, Polis said.
"As we build back our economy, we need to do it in a way that lifts up everyone in our state," he said.
A Way Forward will be working hard on legislators who might otherwise be distracted by the health and economic crisis of the moment to deal with an issue that's eluded lawmakers for years.
"Our focus is quite relentless: We want to drive toward a solution as much as possible during this legislative session," said Mike Kopp, the president and CEO of Colorado Concern and chairman of A Way Forward and a former state senator
The coalition laid out the conflicts of the past that have seemed to bog down efforts to find a long-term source of money for transportation — all or nothing propositions, most often. The solutions have included new taxes, a larger share of the dollars the state already collects or ensuring highway dollars are spent efficiently and in the public eye for contracts and administration.
"Perfection or nothing," was listed as one of the main hurdles, but others included "electric versus gas," "road or bikes" and paying as the state goes or borrowing the money.
The last conflicts brought in media figures "Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow," or conservative versus liberal, a nod to the partisan politics that shouldn't govern highways.
"We obviously have to break through our impasses," Kopp said.
If that's the case and the result is sustainable solutions, Polis is ready to sign some bills.
"Hopefully legislation gets sent to my desk that not only supports the 10-year plan but modernizes our transportation system and keeps Colorado competitive now and into the future."
A Way Forward is led by bold-faced leaders. Besides Kopp, the executive committee includes:
- Gary Arnold, business manager for Denver Pipefitters Local 208
- Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership
- Dave Davia, executive vice president and CEO for Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association
- Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association
- Loren Furman, senior vice president of state and federal relations of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce
- Tony Milo, executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association
- Jake Swanton, the senior manager for public policy for the Rockies region and the Southwest for Lyft
- Sandra Hagen Solin of Capitol Solutions, who represents a number of northern Colorado economic development groups and transportation advocates.
Milo said those who use the roads most need to chip in more, but so do state legislators when they parcel out the state operating budget every year. Most often, roads are left behind for schools, social services and pet projects of the General Assembly's majority.
"It's been volatile, and if we can make that more consistent we can definitely address the needs," he said.
Solin, a veteran lobbyist and expert on how tax dollars do or don't get spent at the statehouse, said any solution has to involve the state budget, or it's not really a solution.
"Transportation is a basic and central function of government and should have a contribution from the general fund, but consistency is important," she said.
The 10-year plan Polis referenced was unveiled by the Colorado Department of Transportation last year, just before the pandemic cratered the economy. Funding that plan will take an extra $500 million a year on top of its historic baseline budget.
The first four years are covered by Senate Bill 267 that lawmakers from both parties brokered in 2017 to put $2 billion in roads, mostly rural routes and small-town main streets.
Advocates hope the legislature will budget $250 million a year, and the rest would come from road users, meaning more taxes and fees.
Solin called that $250 million request "very doable, and it's a tiny, minuscule fraction of the overall ($31 billion last year) budget, and it demonstrates a commitment of we're-all-in-this-together, skin-in-the-game approach."