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May 24, 2017 9:00 AM, EDT

Colorado Transportation Officials Search for Bipartisan Solution to Transportation Woes

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WINDSOR, Colo. — Investing in Colorado's transportation infrastructure, specifically along the Front Range, is necessary to accommodate the high volume of people moving into the area due to the vast economic growth, regional transportation experts say.

The Northern Colorado Economic Alliance held a discussion May 23 at the Windsor Readiness Center, which featured Gov. John Hickenlooper as well as a panel of four transportation advocates in the industry.

The panel included Sandra Hagen Solin, founder of Capitol Solutions, a government affairs and lobbying firm that represents business clients; Kathy Gilliland, a Colorado Department of Transportation commissioner; Curt Burgener, president of Transpro Burgener, a trucking company; and Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Northern Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Their focus was on pushing business leaders in the community to find a bipartisan solution that addresses transportation issues along the Front Range, noting the need to ease congestion in the area and upgrade the quality of roads. If not, officials worry those migrating to the state for the wealth of jobs might stray to other states that are investing in their transportation infrastructure, especially Utah.

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"If you drive from Colorado into Utah, you'll see a marked, dramatic difference in the condition of the roads," Hickenlooper said. "Sooner or later that will begin to take its toll on where young people decide to move and take their businesses."

Hickenlooper said the state's western neighbor is investing in its roads at four times the rate as Colorado, spending about $600 million per year on new infrastructure. Colorado spends about $150 million a year, with 2.4 million fewer people to accommodate.

"On a statewide scale, that is just not enough," he said.

After this year's legislative session, which ended earlier this month, lawmakers secured $1.9 billion for transportation projects through Senate Bill 267, which also increased pot taxes and gave business owners a tax break. An attempt, known as House Bill 1242, to get $3.5 billion in bonds for transportation projects funded by existing sales tax revenues ultimately failed in both the House and the Senate.

According to CDOT, about $9 billion is needed to fund highway projects over the next decade, not including local roads in communities.

"What we're looking at is a significant shortfall," Gilliland said. "I can tell you that in the state right now, we're about $1 billion short every year of what our needs are just to keep up with everything."

Hickenlooper suggested a sales tax is the most politically viable option for transportation funding, as most initiatives to raise gas taxes are widely unsupported. The last time Colorado raised its gas tax was in 1991.

Blackmore said bettering the roads is critical, noting that the population is expected to double in the region by 2040 and that the number of jobs available is supposed to double as well. But it's hard to get residents to approve a sales or gas tax to benefit roads, she said.

"[Voters] expect it to be there, but they don't expect to have to pay for it," Blackmore said.

She explained that transportation should be treated as a utility, and she said most residents spend an average of $28 per month for transportation — nothing compared to phone or cable bills people voluntarily pay. They spend about three to four times more for those types of utilities, she said, but don't typically put transportation in that category.

"People get hung up on 'no new taxes' — they feel that what they pay at the gas tank is enough," Hagen Solin said. "They need to realize [our roads are] an investment, like anything we do in our homes."

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