No matter who controls Colorado’s legislature or executive branch — or, for that matter, Congress — some basic realities about our state’s overburdened, underfunded transportation grid remain:
• Upgrades to highways, roads and bridges as well as basic maintenance of transportation infrastructure are backlogged to the point of being alarming. Sure, you’ve heard that one before — because it happens to be the case. That’s in large part due to years of neglect by governors and legislatures — by and large Democrats, whose party ideology gives low priority to highway funding.
• The state’s budget must contribute a piece of the pie; legislators need skin in the game — rather than expecting other potential sources to pick up the tab. Which is to say tending to highways is a basic, essential function of state government.
• User fees are a great funding source in concept — until they almost literally run out of gas, as has Colorado’s outdated gas tax. Creative new approaches to funding likely must be developed and become part of the funding mix, as well.
• Mass transit as well as transportation alternatives, from ride sharing to bicycles and beyond, cannot come close to bearing the load of the privately owned and operated automobile or truck when it comes to moving people and cargo. It will be that way for the foreseeable future. So, cars and trucks must be accommodated.
• Coloradans’ patience with perpetually bottlenecked highway corridors is wearing thin.
All of which is back on the radar. The 2021 legislature is fast approaching, and this week, Gov. Jared Polis and others touched on transportation while addressing an annual summit of the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance. Summiteers presumably were all ears, hopeful the governor would in fact do more than just touch on the topic — and in fact commit to a long-run funding approach.
Polis wasn’t willing to go that far, offering truisms rather commitments: "Supporting transportation infrastructure is not only an important way to stimulate the economy, it is truly important to our state's competitiveness.”
Which isn’t to say the governor is all talk on the subject. As reported by Colorado Politics, Polis’ budget recommendations for next year include a one-time state stimulus package with $220 million for shovel-ready infrastructure projects, including about $160 million for roads.
But that is a drop in the bucket and certainly not a steady stream for the long term.
The governor only can recommend; it is the legislature that holds the purse strings. And its inclination in recent years hardly has been to push the governor to approve more highway funding. This latest crop of legislative Democrats simply doesn’t lean that way. Not that they’ll say so in those words, but it shows in their budget priorities.
Last January, when then-Democratic House Speaker K.C. Becker of Boulder was asked about transportation funding at a gathering of business leaders, she passed the buck. Becker repeatedly pointed to the need for “new revenue” — raising the state’s 22-cent-a-gallon gas tax, for example.
But as to tapping the state’s budget?
“It’s not sustainable, consistent or reliable,” she said. “We have limited resources. We have to balance all the needs of the state.”
Highways always seem to be at the end of the line under the state’s current political regime. Highway advocates are urged to seek funding elsewhere — from local governments; from voters at the ballot box; from the feds. Indeed, a pending federal stimulus package was referenced several times at Tuesday’s virtual summit though Polis’ transportation chief, Shoshana Lew, acknowledged it’s not a long-run solution.
As for the state’s gas tax? Sure, it is earmarked for transportation, and hiking it could squeeze some more money out of the public in the short run, but it is a source of diminishing returns because it is pegged to the amount of fuel you use. Motor vehicles for the most part get far better gas mileage than they used to, so motorists driving the same number of miles from year to year are paying less tax revenue into the state till as they buy cars that burn less gas.
The bottom line is our state lawmakers need to own up to their share of highway funding — and make it a top budget priority once more. But that’s a long shot when the prevailing priority in the General Assembly nowadays is, as Becker put it, to “balance all the needs of the state.”
It doesn’t seem to matter to lawmakers if that priority is shared by the motoring public.