Local officials join legislative leaders on transportation call

Legislative leaders joined local officials on Feb. 22, 2021 virtual call to discuss transportation needs and funding.

The state's Democratic legislative leaders remained vague on Monday afternoon in a video conference with local elected officials about how to raise billions of dollars for transportation. They were nonetheless steadfast that the fix must happen this year.

"If we fail this time, there's nowhere else to turn," said Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, D-Denver.

The state is billions of dollars behind in maintenance and traffic management just to keep up with growth. Now the problems that have accumulated for at least a decade are slowed by the economic fallout of the pandemic.

The Monday afternoon discussion featured county commissioners, a mayor, a city council member and others who told Garnett and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg how the state could better serve their communities.

"One of the things that we're asked to do is to show up with dollars. We have to have dollars even to fund these state projects," said Mayor Jackie Millet of Lone Tree, who is herself professional engineer. "You move up in priority as a local community when you provide those local dollars."

She added that other municipalities report moving money away from local roadways to ensure state projects can progress in their communities.

Fenberg, D-Boulder, clarified that while investments in electric cars and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles should be a component of the state's overall transportation strategy, multimodal transit like buses or trains "can't just be a throwaway portion of our investments." 

He also alluded to the challenge of getting Coloradans to support a fee increase if they perceive the benefits will elude them. Gov. Jared Polis, who is also from Boulder, has recently waged a public campaign against metro Denver's Regional Transportation District to begin construction on a costly rail line to the nearby city that was part of the FasTracks tax increase of 2004.

"I gave you that money, I never got my road or my train," Fenberg described the argument people may make. "I think accountability, transparency and making sure that everybody is included on the front end as well as that people can see the impact on the back end ... is part of the 'how.'"

In a 2017 report, the Colorado Department of Transportation estimated that its maintenance, expansion and upgrade needs for the state's highways totaled $19 billion between 2016 and 2025. The agency noted a funding gap of $9 billion.

Multiple lawmakers are currently crafting a revenue-raising measure that would increase fees, potentially in the form of a fee added on top of the existing gas tax. The state last raised its gas tax in 1991, where it has sat at 22 cents per gallon. Its value has eroded due to inflation, increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles and the spread of electric and hybrid cars.

Due to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, tax rate increases and new taxes must go to a vote of the people. Coloradans have shot down multiple attempts to find new money, including two alternative measures to increase taxes and issue bonds in 2018 and a proposition one year later for the state to retain TABOR refunds for transportation, among other purposes.

Millet proposed to the group that whatever money the state plans to raise, a portion of it go back to the five metropolitan planning organizations in Denver and other major population centers, which are federally mandated to coordinate transportation policy.

Doing so "would make a difference on climate, air quality, safety, mobility and equity challenges facing the 83% of the state's population that resides within one of those five."

While supporting the notion of a stable and predictable income stream on Monday's call, El Paso County Commissioner Holly Williams, representing Colorado Counties Inc., called for "both new revenue and a dedicated general fund contribution" to transportation. 

Garnett cited recent reporting from The Denver Post that 30 other states have raised their gasoline taxes in the last eight years, including Colorado's neighboring state of Utah. 

"What you've seen over time is this backlog continue to pile up and it's starting to have an impact on our quality of life. It's having an impact on our competitiveness and on businesses throughout the state. We aren't keeping pace," he said.

The speaker concluded, however, that he is optimistic 2021 will be the year that a solution will break through. He also acknowledged a certain gratitude that previous attempts failed because currently lawmakers can "future-proof" the transportation system by accounting for new mobility technologies and habits, like ride sharing.

Multiple participants on the call reiterated a need for equity in resources. A continuing status quo, observed Garnett and Williams, will provide frustrated localities an excuse to pursue projects on their own, while failing to address the broader needs of the rest of the state.

Polis, who made an appearance on the call at the end, said that no additional money would mean the gas tax revenue would deteriorate from inflation alone by $2 billion over the next decade.

"There's enormous unfunded liability there that would require who-knows-what in the future. It would be a disaster for future governors. We could fix that now," the governor said.

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