Henry Sobanet and Ben Stein

Henry Sobanet, left, and Ben Stein are the new Terry J. Stevinson fellows for the Common Sense Policy Roundtable.

Colorado's transportation system has been idling at the crossroads of growth and politics for a long time. The solutions won't be easier or cheaper post-pandemic, but critical to the state's recovery and its prosperity, according to a new paper from two of the state's best-informed sources published Thursday by the Common Sense Institution policy think tank.

When it comes to Colorado transportation dollars, Henry Sobanet and Ben Stein know where the dollars are and where they aren't.

"The question becomes, of course: How do you pay for it?" Stein told dozens of business people and transportation advocates on a Zoom call Thursday morning. "We've listed a number of options. We're not picking a specific option. We're presenting options to give you an idea of what the magnitude is and what it would cost."

The wild card, of course, is how fast or how wholeheartedly Gov. Jared Polis and legislative Democrats push transportation options such as electric vehicles, mass transit against short- and mid-term solutions to the glut of vehicles on the roads now. 

Read the full report by clicking here.

Sobanet and Stein are the Common Sense Institute's Terry J. Stevinson Fellows, tasked with examining the critical money issues facing Colorado and coming up with achievable solutions.

Those solutions could cost Coloradans more in taxes (gas, income or sales), vehicle registration fees or per-mile charges. The paper assesses each.

Two veteran Colorado government money managers are joining the Common Sense Policy Roundtable as Terry J. Stevinson Fellows, who are tasked with examining the critical issues facing Colorado and coming up with achievable solutions.

The pair address the implications of dipping into to the existing state budget for more transportation dollars.

"I don't think it's just the politics," Sobanet said. "It's also our state constitution, which mandates growth and reducing the revenue to maintain it simultaneously. I know every business person listening today, that's how they run their business, and that's in our constitution. 

He said it's a powerful talking point to talk about prioritizing the state budget to include transportation, but it's not nearly that simple with the demands already on the general fund. Voters prioritized the budget with tax reductions and growth in K-12 schools, on top of inflation, recessions and increased public safety and criminal justice."

"For 20 years the biggest tax policies have been tax cuts," which amounted to about 8% of the state operating budget, the former budget director said.

Colorado can't afford to stand still, Sobanet said.

"We think the status quo is going to take us backward," he said. 

Sobanet was the state budget director under Govs. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and Bill Owens, a Republican. He currently serves as chief financial officer of the Colorado State University system. He served on the Colorado Transportation Commission from 2005 to 2009.

Stein is formerly Colorado’s deputy state treasurer before he served as chief financial officer of the Colorado Department of Transportation. Stein also is the former chief of staff to then-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and currently works on transportation for the Denver office of Atkins Global, a design and engineering consulting firm.

"The good news is that Colorado is a growing and thriving state," Stein said. "The bad news for our transportation system is that Colorado is a growing and thriving state."

The numbers tell the story of why Colorado is falling behind. Population growth plus inflation on construction costs have grown 111% between 2004 and 2019. The pot of federal gas tax money to pay for transportation grew just 47%.

Setting aside the current recession, the state still needed another $300 million for the state highway department annually "to keep the system largely in the condition it currently is now," the report states. "[W]e recommend this as the “must do” step for Colorado to take as soon as possible."

The deficit jumps to $500 million annually, if the state continues sharing transportation dollars with cities and counties.

They don't provide an endorsement, and the men abstained from wading into politics in the paper and in their presentation, but they spell out the case for Democrats and Republicans to consider when the legislative session reconvenes in January.

The report describes a slowly unfolding crisis driven by growth, depreciation, wildly expensive options financed primarily by a diminishing gas tax that hasn't been raised since in three decades. As vehicles become more fuel efficient or rely on electricity, they gas tax money is less, while the road usage is more, Sobanet pointed out.

The results are upon us: congestion and backlogged repairs.

Sobanet and Stein also not that while the pandemic brings challenges, transportation issues need solutions to drive the recovery, because even if it carries fewer commuters to offices, it still must serve a growing home delivery economy.

“The CSI report makes it clear that Colorado business leaders are concerned about the effects of our woefully underfunded transportation system," Colorado Contractors Association executive director Tony Milo said after the presentation Thursday. “It lays out a very clear and realistic roadmap for fixing the problem and moving our economy forward.”

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