The state legislature is on a month-long hiatus, granting time for the COVID-19 vaccine to provide a cushion. When they return, one can expect the issue of state transportation funding to return as well, resuming its normally stable top-tier spot in the pantheon of state legislative issues.
The need for a solution to the transportation funding dilemma is pressing and self-evident. The pandemic temporarily reduced traffic, but even so roads are already becoming re-congested, and will only get worse once commerce reopens and public life resumes. Our roads and bridges languish in varied states of disrepair as the Department of Transportation’s maintenance list gestates and existing projects go unfulfilled. There is hardly a major artery in the state that is not punctuated with axle-jarring potholes.
So it’s not a question of need; what remains are two primary avenues of contention — a) how to fund it and b) how to direct those funds. Unsurprisingly, both have been subject to the usual political mitosis.
On the issue of funding, Republicans typically consider provision of transportation infrastructure as a core and legitimate state government function, and accordingly believe it ought therefore to be prioritized in the existing budget, ahead of, say, full-day kindergarten, needle exchanges, state-owned health insurance, or ukulele lessons for inmates. Liberal Democrats like to fund everything they can think of, and so prefer to create new sources of revenue.
The conservative position in this regard is the most economically defensible one (and therefore happens to be my own) but runs up against the wall of political reality — both the executive and legislative branches of state government are held, quite firmly, by the party opposite. That means that Republicans can rail all they want, but when the clock strikes midnight and the coach reverts to a pumpkin, there is precisely zero chance of bringing about the solely General Fund–allocated transportation policy that conservatives (myself included) dream of.
That leaves limited alternatives. One is to hold fast, hope for a reversal in the state’s political fortunes in due course, and consequently allow our transportation infrastructure to further erode and stagnate. The other is to be curious and open to alternatives, even those which impel to a diversion from the normally associated orthodoxy.
Republicans in Colorado harbor a predisposed resistance to the imposition of fees, and for good reason; the constitutional limitations of TABOR motivate in Democrats an almost desperate zeal to identify new public funding sources not subject to the plebiscitary assent of the voters — those ukulele lessons won’t pay for themselves — urging a reflexive tendency to resort to their old friend the “fee,” far too often used as a substitute word for “tax.” The state Supreme Court has, regrettably, been complicit in this taxonomical sleight-of-hand.
But it weakens one’s argument to focus exclusively on abuses. I can point to several abuses of the First Amendment without being opposed in principle to freedom of speech. Likewise, fees, properly understood and applied, are not inimical to conservative thought. The concept of paying for something you use is not anathema to the legacy of Adam Smith (in fact, it would go a long way towards resolving our health care issues.)
A proper fee structure could, among other things, address the lingering matter of those users who do not, currently, pay for the infrastructure they use. Similarly, while electric vehicles may not achieve the market penetration that government manipulation of that market may desire, their numbers are increasing on the roads, and it is reasonable, necessary even, to devise a fiscal instrument for them to pay their fair share for what they use.
The second part of the equation, how to allocate whatever funding we come up with, is essentially a battle between reality and fantasy. The reality is that transportation in Colorado is vehicle-based, and for reasons of geography and economy will remain so well into the future. Meaning the most pressing need for those dollars is to maintain current infrastructure and prudently expand future capacity. Since FasTracks passed in 2004, we have spent billions of dollars on light rail, at the expense of the infrastructure that the overwhelming majority of the state actually uses. Just as reality informs us that movement from entrenched thought must be made on funding options, it concurrently informs us that the money generated from those alternatives must prioritize the useful over the utopic.
Dispassionate analysis, from both sides, is not nearly as much fun as partisan combat, but it is far more productive.