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October 16, 2018 2:00 PM, EDT

Colorado at the Crossroads

Transportation Dollars at Stake in Election
Colorado Interstate Traffic backs up on Interstate 70 near Silvethorne, Colo., a familiar scene on the main highway connecting Denver to the mountains. (Thomas Peipert/Associated Press)

Colorado’s means of getting around are in great need of attention, partisans on every side agree. But the various solutions and competing ways of paying for transportation improvements offered by candidates and ballot measures are a different political matter entirely.

Interstates across Colorado have gotten by on a federal gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1993. And the Legislature annually looks the other way on funding the repairs and expansion brought on by population and economic growth, despite the financial windfall of the state’s turbocharged economy.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has told policymakers it needs an infusion of $9 billion in the next decade and $20 billion in the next 20 years.

The November ballot will offer competing visions of how to boost transportation funding. One calls for devoting $3.5 billion in state funds to roads without a tax hike; another would raise $6 billion for various improvements by charging an extra 0.62 cents on the state’s 2.9-cent sales tax.

Meanwhile, the candidates for governor are talking transportation, too. But strip away the competing rhetoric about how severe the problem is, and you’re left with their word that they’ll do the best they can, not a pledge of dollars toward solutions.

This is as much about competing visions as it is dollars. The left wants more commuter rail, bike lanes and low-emission vehicles to keep polluting cars off of the state’s overcrowded highways. The right favors wider lanes and new roads to accommodate more traffic to keep tourism and commerce rolling.

On top of that, Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights caps government spending then forces refunds, rather than letting lawmakers use the state’s credit card for taxing and spending on major long-term projects, such as highway overhauls and mass transit. TABOR forces government to be more efficient, but it often means trade-offs between infrastructure and human services.

In Colorado, transportation investment has dwindled as a share of total spending. A decade ago, transportation accounted for 10% of the state budget. This year, it’s about 6%.

Voters in November will have four opportunities to weigh in on transportation through their ballot — two ballot measures and two candidates:

Proposition 109: Would require the Legislature to borrow $3.5 billion for high-priority road and bridge projects and pay it back over 20 years from existing tax revenue.

 

Proposition 110: Would raise the state sales tax by 0.62 cent — a 21% increase — to fund various state and local transportation needs, with a required share for alternative transportation.

 

Jared Polis (D): Wants green-powered transportation, but he puts forth no new revenue in his campaign platform plank. He says he does not “personally support or endorse” Proposition 110 to raise taxes but adds he will implement it if passed.

 

Walker Stapleton (R): Would use money from sports betting for transportation, though critics say it’s not nearly enough. He supports Proposition 109.

Opponents of spending more from the state budget on transportation without raising taxes say that would endanger schools and social programs when the economy cools and the state budget tightens; loans must be repaid, while programs and benefits would be cut.

“I think you’re seeing the choice we have before us on the ballot, in the form of 109 and 110,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning economic think tank in Denver and the former deputy c hief of staff to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“On one hand you have a responsible plan to bond for a number of road projects as well as transit, and that’s Proposition 110,” he said. “And then you have a completely irresponsible ultimatum to the state Legislature to take out a giant loan we can’t pay for and put up our schools and hospitals and child care as collateral.”

Former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams was the campaign manager for the last Republican governor, Bill Owens, who persuaded voters in 1999 to overwhelmingly pass Referendum A, which borrowed nearly $1.7 billion for transportation projects with no new taxes. They were called Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes, referred to as TRANS bonds.

“Initially, Gov. Owens thought we could get TRANS passed through legislation since it did not raise taxes, but the minority Democratic state Senate leadership went to the [state] Supreme Court, which was all [appointees of Democratic Govs. Dick Lamm and Roy Romer], to force us to go to the ballot and they won,” Wadhams said.

That meant a statewide vote — something that pundits said Owens, who had been elected by a narrow majority just a year earlier in 1998, could not pass.

Wadhams took a leave of absence as Owens’ press secretary in August 1999 to run the TRANS campaign.

“It was a huge overall political boon to Owens who ended up going into the 2002 re-election campaign with huge approval numbers,” Wadhams recalled. “He ended up being almost unopposed for re-election when Democrats nominated the well-meaning Rollie Heath, whom Democrats let languish with little support.”

A lack of bold plans

It’s hard to imagine either gubernatorial candidate this year building a legacy on roads.

Until recently, Stapleton had said only that he would cut administrative costs and boost efficiency in CDOT operations to plow more dollars into roads.

“We need a long-term solution to fix our state’s transportation problems,” Stapleton said. “We can no longer kick the can down the road. I will demand transparency and accountability from the Department of Transportation, find a long-term revenue stream to fund our transportation needs and prioritize building roads and bridges, something we have neglected for far too long.”

He identified only a “potential” revenue source in legalized sports gambling, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May could be authorized by the states.

We need a long-term solution to fix our state’s transportation problems. We can no longer kick the can down the road.

Walker Stapleton (R)

Walker Stapleton

But that’s hardly a fast lane. First, the Legislature would have to legalize sports betting, then voters would have to approve a tax on the new business — two high hurdles, especially if Democrats retain the House or Senate.

The Polis campaign fired back that Stapleton’s gambling plan is a fool’s bet that would bring in a pittance of the billions needed.

Polis said if Colorado is lucky enough to bring in the $15 million in tax revenue that Nevada earns from sports betting, it would take 600 years to raise the $9 billion needed in the next decade.

Polis’ transportation plan, however, ensures even less — as in nothing. He, instead, vows to work with the Legislature, which is what Hickenlooper tried to do.

I oppose putting our state billions in debt without any revenue like Walker will do.

Jared Polis (D)

Jared Polis

Colorado Politics asked his campaign to show voters the money. Instead, he said this in a statement:

“I support using new and existing sources of revenue to fund road and highway projects without sacrificing funding for health care or public schools. I oppose putting our state billions in debt without any revenue like Walker will do. Instead, I will work with Republicans, Democrats and the business community to find a funding compromise that works if Proposition 110 fails on the ballot this fall.”

Without any proposal to pay for it, Polis went on to say he would work to connect Fort Collins to Pueblo with high-speed commuter rail. A feasibility study to do that already is in the works.

He said high-speed internet also is part of his transportation plan, especially for rural areas, to “enable more telecommuting and help people work in the communities they live in.”

Competing ballot questions

While Proposition 109 would put $3.5 billion directly into asphalt and repairs on 66 projects, Proposition 110 promises $6 billion to 107 state projects.

Neither completely solves the problems the state’s tremendous growth and long-neglected infrastructure spending have placed on residents, visitors and truckers.

Under the Prop 109 plan, CDOT would get 45%, cities and counties would each get 20% and then 15% would go for “multimodal projects,” such as bike lanes, mass transit and such.

While the tax is a boon for local governments — whose leaders don’t have to face the direct political fallout of requesting a tax hike — opponents say that voters have no idea how that tax money will be spent before they cast ballots next month.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers opposes the Prop 110 tax hike, saying local voters have more control and more return on investment by passing local taxes for local projects.

Colorado Construction

Road signs direct drivers past construction along Highway 36 in Broomfield, Colo. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Proposition 110 is backed by a coalition led by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which crafted the tax hike proposal behind closed doors with public officials, as Colorado Politics reported last spring.

Proponents argue that it’s only about 6 cents on a $10 purchase (and that’s about $144 on a $24,000 used car), and the state’s wealth of tourists will help pick up the tab. They say transit and other alternative transportation are ways to look forward toward longer-range solutions.

“You cannot pave your way out of a $9 billion challenge in the state of Colorado when you have this many needs,” said Dan Gibbs, a former Democratic state legislator who now is a Summit County commissioner and a Prop 110 backer. “The 15% for multimodal is extremely important.”

He said that’s especially true on the urban Front Range, but mountain towns and rural Eastern plains communities need transit services, too. Proposition 110 offers that, but widening interstates alone doesn’t.

Radio host Kim Monson, a Prop 109 supporter, said the sales tax in Proposition 110 would hit every Coloradan on practically everything they buy. “It really will make everyday life more expensive,” she said.

Jon Caldara is president of the libertarian-minded Independence Institute and the driving force behind Prop 109. His proposal would get 66 top-tier highway projects done with a bond issue that would take about $260 million out of the state budget.

The Trump tax cuts are expected to bring in $900 million more for the state budget next year, largely by doing away with federal tax breaks that make some income taxable at the state level, according to budget analysts.

“We’re saying, can we use just a third of that for this core function of government that our state has not funded in over a decade?” Caldara said.

Passing [Prop] 110’s tax increase will tackle a greater number of state highway projects, while 109 assures the state budget contributes to our transportation funding challenge. Passing both would be the best of both worlds for transportation advocates.

Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads

Fix Colorado Roads Logo

Last year, the state budget was about $28.9 billion, meaning fixing roads would cost less than 1% of a budget that grows every year. The budget grew nearly 8% last year.

“Colorado doesn’t have a revenue problem,” Monson said. “We have enough revenue. We just don’t spend it in the right places.”

Taking money from an existing budget strained by other needs, including schools and Medicaid costs, Prop 109 makes no sense, Gibbs counters.

“When we have 100,000 new people moving to Colorado each year, their proposal just doesn’t cut it,” Gibbs said.

Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads, the statewide business coalition that’s pushed for more transportation funding for years, said both proposals offer some relief and spreads it across the state. She would like to see both pass to make a bigger leap forward on the much larger $9 billion problem.

“Passing [Prop] 110’s tax increase will tackle a greater number of state highway projects, while 109 assures the state budget contributes to our transportation funding challenge,” she said. “Passing both would be the best of both worlds for transportation advocates.”

Confusion for voters

Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, said voters understand the “bumpy, congested” problems, even if the solutions politicians put forward are confounding.

Voters will have to prioritize how much they’re willing to tax themselves. Education funding is on the ballot along with transportation; Amendment 73 would raise the corporate tax rate as well as income taxes on high earners to raise $1.6 billion for schools.

A study cited by proponents of this year’s Proposition 110 says Colorado’s unmet highway needs exact about $2,100 a year from the metro Denver commuter in the form on lost time, fuel and delivery delays.

Almost everyone travels or relies on goods and tourists delivered over the roads, Teske points out.

“That is different from, say, K-12 education where three-quarters of households don’t have a student in K-12, so they don’t experience it personally in the same way,” he said. “So, that makes it easier to make the case for more money for roads, and perhaps transit, but that depends on your focus.”

In partisan philosophy, Stapleton supports lower taxes and putting dollars directly into asphalt; Polis plays to a broader, greener constituency whose members “somewhat tie the transportation stuff to oil and gas development,” Teske said.

“The [Denver] chamber and more mainstream business folks want the sales tax increase to pay for more transportation improvement, though still not enough to get to the $9 billion that CDOT says we need, to keep our economy and quality of life strong,” he said. “So I think the ‘how much money to roads and where it comes from’ is the primary debate.”

 

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