Rep. Matt Gray and Sen. Faith Winter have a plan to infuse much-needed cash into Colorado’s ailing transportation infrastructure — and they’re calling in the big guns to make sure their proposal ends up on Gov. Jared Polis’ desk.
“We're confident,” Gray said in an interview with Colorado Politics. “We think this is the best shot we've had in a long time because we have both the leadership of our chambers and the governor's office in alignment with us.”
The plan would boost transportation revenues through fee increases on individuals and businesses as well as contributions from lawmakers via the state's discretionary spending account.
Business interests and advocates appear to be on board too, but in interviews with Colorado Politics they stressed the need for a significant general fund commitment.
Gray, a Broomfield Democrat, and Winter, a Democrat hailing from Westminster, make up the General Assembly’s dynamic duo on transportation. Winter has chaired the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee since 2019 and Gray is vice chair of the House Transportation and Local Government Committee after leading the panel in 2019 and 2020.
They bring the expertise. House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who Gray and Winter say are signed on as sponsors, will provide the political muscle.
And Gray says they’re looking to move quickly.
“It's not going to drop on the first day, but all four sponsors want to introduce it as soon as possible,” Gray said of the bill. “We know that the bane of transportation funding proposals before has been, ‘Oh, we've got plenty of time.’ And then you get to April and people shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Hey, nothing we can do, this is too hard.’ ”
Not this time, Gray and Winter said. While they aren’t quite at the bill drafting stage yet, the pair estimate they’ve held more than 60 stakeholder meetings and have a good sense of the direction they want to move in to secure more money for roads.
Funding: In search of “a big solution”
Finding the money to pay for infrastructure improvements has been a near-annual excursion that more often than not has failed to bear fruit. Solutions typically bog down in competing interests. Combined with dwindling gas tax revenues as vehicles become more fuel efficient, Colorado's roads and bridges are a decade and billions of dollars in investments behind.
The plan to bridge that gap, Gray and Winter laid out in an interview with Colorado Politics, will ask “everyone to go in a little more to do a big solution.” But what that “little more” looks like is set to vary.
“For the Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, FedEx, Amazon folks who are already tracking their drivers for business reasons down to the inch by GPS, we want to build systems around them where we charge them for the exact amount they're using the roads,” Gray said.
Within that road-usage fee system, Gray and Winter say they’re aiming to incentivize companies to decrease congestion and road usage. An Uber with three passengers, Gray said, would rack up lower road-use charges than an Uber with one passenger.
That plan works out well for technologically advanced companies who are capable of providing advanced data in real time. But Gray acknowledged “for the average person, we're not there yet.”
“There are privacy concerns, logistical concerns, so for the consumer, what it looks like is probably augmenting the fee on gasoline for gas vehicles and the charge on electric vehicles,” he said. The fee on gas would sit on top of the gas tax, which has remained at 22 cents per gallon since 1992. Owners of electric vehicles currently pay an annual $50 fee in addition to standard registration fees.
Regardless of how the new levies will be implemented though, Gray said they will be tied to inflation “so that we don't put future legislators in the same bind that we've been put in.”
“Our gas tax right now is set at a level to support the Colorado economy as it existed in 1992,” Gray said. “'It’s a Bill Clinton level of funding, not a Joe Biden level of funding, and a lot has happened since then.”
They also hope the Joint Budget Committee commits more money toward infrastructure as the panel works through Polis’ budget proposal. Gray pointed to $130 million in stimulus money for transportation funding in the governor's proposal.
“We want to tie that into this,” he said.
For Republican lawmakers, Sen. Ray Scott says the plan amounts to “trying to put lipstick on a tax and call it a fee.”
“The voters in Colorado have been very clear: they've turned down additional taxes on transportation funding ideas,” the Grand Junction Republican said. “I think they're being disingenuous and saying that the voters don't matter.”
Scott said GOP lawmakers would prefer to see road funding come from bonding.
“Yes, you're borrowing the money, but what better time to borrow money than now when it's cheap?” he said.
Spending: The 10-year plan and more
Gray and Winter say they have biweekly meetings with the executive branch on their proposal, and it appears to have caught Polis’ eye. Speaking last month at an online summit hosted by the transportation coalition A Way Forward, Polis called for legislation "that not only supports the 10-year plan but modernizes our transportation system and keeps Colorado competitive now and into the future.”
The plan he referenced was unveiled by the state 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.
In a statement, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said the governor "is hopeful that a legislative package will come to his desk with immediate relief for Coloradans in the form of reducing the gas tax or cutting annual vehicle registration fees."
"In addition to saving people money on gas or fees, a solid plan would create a long-range funding solution that future proofs our roads and supports the state’s ten-year transportation plan and cuts pollution emissions,” Cahill said.
Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association and a member of the A Way Forward coalition, said he would like to see a 50/50 split to reach that annual $500 million target. That would mean half the money would come from increased fees and the other half would be kicked in by lawmakers out of the state’s discretionary spending account. Gray and Winter say that’s not going to happen.
“We told this to the folks in the A Way Forward coalition before that meeting, after that meeting and in additional meetings since then: $250 million from the general fund on an ongoing commitment isn't sustainable based on the fact that that would take away from public education, health care and human services and criminal justice reform,” Gray said.
“Where our general fund is right now with the current economy, we're never going to be able to sell that to our caucus and even if we could, I don’t think Sen. Winter and I would want to.”
Fulton said that a 50/50 split was the goal and recognized negotiations on general fund contributions are still ongoing. While he said that number doesn’t have to be exactly $250 million, it did have to be “commensurate with the essentiality of the transportation system.”
“It's important that it is a significant enough amount to tell folks and to show the support and the overall commitment is there,” Fulton said.
Sandra Hagen Solin agreed. The veteran lobbyist and member of the A Way Forward coalition told Colorado Politics the general fund contribution would have to be “meaningful” in order to maintain the support of the business community.
As for how much lawmakers would be willing to kick in and how much revenue their new bill would generate, Winter was coy.
“We haven't released numbers yet and we're working through those numbers on what each individual fee is and how much it's indexed,” Winter said. “We might not start in the first year at that [$500 million] level but that's a range that I think we're going to get to.”
Still, Winter’s plans for spending the money the bill is set to raise stretch beyond Polis’ 10-year plan. She said investments are also needed in a host of other areas, including:
Electrification infrastructure to power the state’s electric vehicle goals.
“We think we can do all of those things,” she said.
Federal mood shifts
The package from Winter and Gray comes as power in Washington shifts to a president that talked a big game on the campaign trail on infrastructure investment. President Joe Biden pledged to make a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure, including $50 billion on road and bridge repairs. Biden’s Transportation Secretary told Senate lawmakers during his confirmation hearing there was a “generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure.”
Winter and Gray said their package is specifically designed to attract some of those federal dollars to Colorado.
“We need to take care of our local infrastructure in this package because that also makes us more desirable for the federal government to invest in us on the big projects,” Winter said. One of those, she said, was the I-70 Eisenhower Tunnel in Clear Creek County. Another was the Front Range rail project.
While that project is far too large for the state to fund on its own, Winter said funds could go toward completing enough of the project to convince the feds to invest in Colorado. She specifically highlighted the oft-maligned Northwest Rail project.
That project was approved in a 2004 ballot initiative authorizing a build-out of Regional Transportation District rail lines with an anticipated completion date in 2017. It’s still in the works, and Polis recently called on RTD general manager Debra Johnson to complete the project by 2025.
“With Front Range rail, one of the proposed routes that they have is to actually go through where we live and complete Northwest Rail,” Winter said. “We know we can't fund Front Range rail through this project, but we can find enough funding to do the next big steps to hopefully attract federal funding.”
Solin said she was comfortable with Gray and Winter moving the ball forward on Front Range rail, particularly if it was done with the goal of attracting federal funding. But she told Colorado Politics the revenue generated by gas fee increases has to be reinvested in roads.
“What bipartisan looks like will be different”
Given the margins in each chamber, Gray and Winter could pass their bill without help from Republicans. But Gray said “we're here to talk to everybody.”
Everybody except Republican lawmakers, Scott complained.
“I have not seen anything that's been proposed nor as far as I know have any of my caucus members,” he said. “Republicans have been left out of the discussion other than what we read in the media.”
The pair said that through the course of stakeholder meetings, they’ve built a broad bipartisan coalition of groups and elected officials outside the state Capitol that will support the bill. Winter said at least one Republican in her chamber would be open to supporting it as well. But she acknowledged it would likely be difficult to get more, “given the conversation around fees and taxes and what each of the parties might believe.”
“What bipartisan looks like will be different on this one,” she said.
As for their own caucuses, Gray and Winter expressed confidence in broad support. But even with Garnett and Fenberg backing their proposal, they say they aren’t resting on their laurels.
“We will keep working until we see the [governor’s] signature on the bill,” Gray said. “If we thought it was a done deal just based on the names on the bill then we wouldn't do 60 stakeholder meetings to get ready.”
This article has been updated to add a response from the governor's office.