Think of Tony Milo as Colorado’s Lorax. Only, instead of speaking for the trees like the fabled Dr. Seuss character, Milo advocates relentlessly for the state’s infrastructure.
As executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, he is the point man in the perennial push for more funding to highways, bridges and other wide-ranging public works. And almost since taking the helm at the association in 2005, Milo has been forewarning policy makers of the long-term consequences of letting backlogged upgrades to our transportation grid languish on the drawing board.
The transportation-funding compromise hammered out by lawmakers in the closing days of the 2018 legislature is a good start in chipping away at that backlog, Milo tells us in today’s Q&A. But it’s just that — a start — and he says much more far-reaching policy initiatives are needed to truly tackle transportation. Read on.
Colorado Politics: One aim of Q&A is to highlight power players in Colorado politics and policy who maintain a relatively low profile and tend to work in the background — yet often seem to occupy a pivotal position in shaping state policy. That’s certainly you. Figuratively, if not always literally, you turn up at almost every negotiating table involving transportation planning and fiscal policy.
How did an organization with such an unassuming title get to play such an influential role?
Tony Milo: Colorado Contractors bring infrastructure to life for every Coloradan across the state. What our members do is provide the things that people need to live a happy, healthy and productive life. They build roads, bridges and transit systems to get people to school, work and their recreational activities. They build water and wastewater facilities to provide healthy water to all.
So it’s no surprise that the Colorado Contractors play an important role in shaping the state’s public policy. Colorado Contractors are first and foremost hard-working Coloradans.
CP: Year after year, Colorado seems to fall short of hammering out a far-reaching solution to our perennial transportation bottleneck. You and your organization have been on this particular merry-go-round for years and probably have as good a feel as anyone in the state as to what stands in the way of a long-term transportation plan.
What in your experience is the obstacle, and what needs to be done about it?
Milo: It’s pretty simple: We don’t have a sustainable, long-term funding source for transportation infrastructure. Every year, advocates for transportation infrastructure head to the state Capitol to battle for resources against advocates for other worthy budget priorities — from education to health care to public safety. And, every year our infrastructure falls further and further behind.
The answer is to identify and implement a long-term, sustainable funding source for transportation.
CP: Will voters face a ballot issue this year to address transportation and if so, what will they likely be asked to do about it?
Milo: We simply have to identify and secure a long-term, sustainable funding solution for transportation. It appears that the legislature will designate some dollars to transportation this year. And while we’re grateful for those dollars, they don’t come close to answering the $9 billion of needs within the system. It’s a pretty sad day when you have to admit that $500 million is a drop in the bucket.
But, the problem still remains: We don’t have a long-term solution. Unfortunately, the gas tax — 22 cents per gallon — does not increase annually with inflation and has not been increased since 1991. At the same time, cars have become more fuel efficient, which has created a declining collection of revenues and a $9 billion list of needs for our transportation infrastructure.
Funding our transportation system with the ups and downs of the economy does not allow us to address the long-term needs in our system. Without a long-term funding solution, yes, I would expect to see something on the ballot in the near future.
Without a solution, our economy is at risk. Job growth is at risk. Safety is at risk. And, our quality of life is at risk. Our challenge remains. We absolutely must find a solution to our transportation woes.
CP: Colorado’s contemporary rendition of the guns-vs.-butter debate is highways vs. schools. Both have prominent advocates, formidable stakeholders and huge constituencies. How, in the big picture, do we address the needs of both?
Milo: I can’t speak for education, but I can tell you that voters are fed up with sitting in traffic, driving on poorly maintained roads and unsafe bridges. They want action, and that means a combination of the state making an annual commitment with existing taxes and then asking the voters if they want to fill in the gap in funding with a modest tax or fee increase.
CP: The stakeholders in an organization like yours typically get hit from both ends of the political spectrum. One side says your road projects take from schools and human services; the other side accuses you of taxing and spending. Sometimes, both sides even unite to stymie your policy initiatives. How do you navigate those straits in a political forum like the legislature?
Milo: As they say, if this were easy… The reality is that we have ignored infrastructure for too long. For years, infrastructure advocates have been squeezed out of the budget in favor of other priorities. The issue has now become dire. Our lack of infrastructure is costing money, putting safety at risk, and will eventually stifle our economy.
The stats are jarring. According to a report from TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C., driving on deficient roads costs Colorado motorists a staggering $6.8 billion annually in the form of additional vehicle operating costs (VOC), congestion-related delays and traffic crashes. That equates to nearly $2,000 annually for every Colorado driver.
Perhaps even more than costs, our safety is at risk. Forty-one percent of Colorado’s major urban roads are in poor condition and 6 percent of the bridges in our state are structurally deficient. No one wants to imagine their loved ones traveling across unsafe roads and bridges.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the issue has been elevated to crisis status and voters are clamoring for a solution.
CP: Your organization often shares the stage with other policy-advocacy heavyweights from the business community like the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Concern and the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry. That’s a whole lot of combined clout but also, arguably, a who’s-who of “establishment” movers and shakers that populists on the left and right love to beat up on.
Especially in the current climate of political hyper-activism, how do you steer clear of such polarization in pursuit of policies you no doubt see as non-ideological?
Milo: funding our transportation infrastructure is a top priority for a wide range of advocacy groups and for Colorado voters. That’s a good thing. But it’s not enough to be a priority, we have to find a solution and quit kicking the proverbial can down the road. Hopefully, this growing alliance of stakeholders will reach critical mass and achieve a solution.
CP: When you were a college freshman, did you think you one day would be paving roads via politics in Colorado?
Milo: Ha ha! Not really. I was studying political science at Michigan State University and always hoped to be involved in public policy. The fact that I ended up in one of the greatest states in the nation representing one of the most important industries in the world is very much a welcome surprise!