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January 24, 2017 10:24 AM, EST

With Political Leaders on Board, There Could Be Movement on Transportation Funding in Colorado

Colorado’s Department of Transportation has a $9 billion funding shortfall. That can be blamed partly on the state’s failure to raise its taxes of 20.5 cents per gallon on diesel and 22 cents on gasoline since 1992. However, both of those facts could change soon as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and the leaders of Colorado’s House and Senate all endorsed increased transportation funding at the Jan. 11 start of the legislative session.

“Voters are tired of us kicking the can down the road because they know it’s going to land in a pothole,” Hickenlooper said in his State of the State address. “If talk could fill potholes, we’d have the best roads in the country. In our neighboring state of Utah, infrastructure investment is a priority. Utah has about half as many people … but invests four times what we do to expand [its] road capacity every year. It’s Economics 101: Smart investments in infrastructure create jobs and strengthen the economy.”

Hickenlooper noted that renovating Interstate 25, Colorado’s major north-south highway, would cost more than $2.5 billion, which is more than CDOT’s annual budget. He also challenged those who think budget cuts can cover Colorado’s infrastructure needs to choose “who loses health care or what schools have to close to add a mile of highway.”

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican, agreed with Hickenlooper about “the deteriorating condition of our transportation infrastructure” but advocated for bonds to pay for the $2.5 billion that CDOT needs to deliver its major projects over the next five years.

“The potential is great this session for a truly bipartisan solution to our roads and highway infrastructure funding,” Grantham said.

New Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, said she was happy that both parties in each chamber are talking about a bipartisan transportation funding plan to fix what she termed Colorado’s “fast-decaying” infrastructure.

“Anyone who’s been on I-25 at rush hour, anywhere from Fort Collins to Pueblo, knows the need is real,” said Duran, noting that Colorado’s population grows by an average of 250 people per day. “Almost half of our bridges need preventive maintenance. Almost 80% of our highways will need repairs or major reconstruction in the next 10 years.”

Such consensus among the state’s top political leaders has Tony Milo, executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, encouraged about transportation finally receiving some significant funding, although any tax increase has to be approved in a referendum, thanks to the state’s 25-year-old Taxpayer's Bill of Rights law.

“Whether it’s new revenue, simplifying or replacing old tax streams, or a combination of both, we can find a solution that clearly spells out to Coloradans exactly what they’re getting and how the money will be spent,” Hickenlooper said.

“In years past, there has been a desire to make transportation funding a priority, but now we actually have an urgency to where we feel that legislators are not going to be able to end this session without coming to some resolution on getting some more money into our system,” Milo said.

Since 1990, Colorado’s population has grown 53% while its lane-miles have increased only 2%, according to FixItCO, a broad coalition of stakeholders seeking a long-term, sustainable funding source for transportation.

“People are more and more frustrated with congestion and potholes and deteriorating bridges,” Milo said. “The pain and inconvenience have grown to the level where people are demanding action and are ready to hold their elected officials accountable if something’s not done.”

Although the Legislature is in session until May 10, Milo warned that action is needed soon “because as a session goes along, other priorities take over. You can lose steam pretty quickly.”