When the Colorado Legislature convenes Wednesday, no priority is higher than transportation, leaders, lobbyists and motorists agree.
They also agree the state’s top priorities are widening Interstate 25 north of Monument to Castle Rock and north of Denver to Fort Collins, as well as the I-70 corridor from Denver to the high country.
Watch our video report, above, by ColoradoPolitics.com’s Mary MacCarthy on Colorado’s transportation-funding challenges
That’s where the traffic jams, crash fatalities and circulatory system of trade and commerce coexist. And along those routes are where votes are decided.
Colorado has nearly $9 billion in road and bridge needs, but only a proposed $1.4 billion annual budget that is consumed almost entirely fixing exiting roads and bridges, plowing snow and preventing rockslides and avalanches.
A much-discussed and widely supported plan to borrow $3.5 billion for signature projects and priorities would need to go to the ballot next November, if it is paid back with a direct increase in taxes. The Legislature during the next four months could agree to refer a bond issue to the ballot.
Besides how the tab gets paid, they will have to agree on how the cash gets spread around and which projects get built first. Those debates are yet to come in the Capitol, before voters get a crack at it.
“I was encouraged last year that everyone agreed transportation funding is a challenge that needs to be fixed,” said Shailen Bhatt, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. “They couldn’t agree on the funding mechanism. … I’m encouraged by the fact it’s a new session.”
CDOT sweetened the deal for southern Front Range legislators on Friday by saying it could use money it has elsewhere in its budget for planning for adding a third lane in each direction of I-25 north of Colorado Springs to Castle Rock. If there’s money to pay for it, the work could start as soon as 2019.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Canon City, said a solution to Colorado’s political quagmire over transportation might look like a patchwork quilt of proposals on general taxes, specific fees and the existing state budget.
“We’re not going to have a single silver-bullet solution that’s going to magically make all this money appear to pay for all the maintenance and bonding,” he said. “What we’re looking at is a multifaceted solution that might be not ‘all of the above’ but a ‘many of the above’ solution.
“We have some very divergent views on both sides of the aisle. There’s going to be a little bit of pain on both sides of the aisle, and there’s going to be a little bit of victory on both sides.”
Ultimately, he said, voters will decide on any tax increase. That means the priority list has to lean toward projects that affect the most people in order for it to pass.
House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat from Denver, said her goal for the session is to work on issues that bind Republicans and Democrats, as well as disparate parts of the state. Transportation tops that list, she said.
In 2015, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, the former state attorney general and a fiscal conservative, helped pass a 0.62 percent sales tax increase for five years for $250 million in local roadwork.
Duran said if other Front Range cities follow suit, there is little or no chance there will a statewide plan that helps the Western Slope and eastern plains.
“I think that may be an area where I think we can reach common ground,” she said. “We’re still trying to figure out what the details will look like.”
The amount of money legislators and voters are willing to put into mass transit instead of asphalt for more lanes could prove critical to the debate.
Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute in Denver, said there’s money for transportation, if the state stops spending it on things that don’t yield enough return, citing mass transit.
“We need to set a first priority and policy on transportation that money goes where it reduces traffic congestion the most,” he said. “It’s not a wild idea. The reason we’re in such a traffic mess is that we don’t follow that very simple principle. In fact, we spend a lot of money for a few (who use mass transit), at the expense of everyone else.”
That kind of thinking is not going to sit well with those on the left. Pete Maysmith, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group Conservation Colorado, said transportation would be one of the influential organization’s top priorities this year.
“We’ve got to plan for this influx of people that have been coming to this state for awhile and will continue to come for many years,” he said of the state’s burgeoning population. “We’ve got to make sure that with our transportation and traffic, we’re modernizing our system, we’re making them safer.”
Danny Katz, director of the left-leaning Colorado Public Interest Research Group, said, “We cannot widen our way into the future – if you’re thinking about highways. We need to be providing people options.
“When you add lanes to highways, they fill up within a few years. So you spend a lot of money to add capacity, but you lose that capacity really quickly. Whereas, if you put a bus or you add other options that allow people the ability to get out of their vehicles, it can be really effective.”
The issue at the statehouse is driven by Fix Our Roads, a statewide transportation interest that grew out of the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, which is made up of chambers of commerce and economic development agencies in Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley frustrated that the completion date for expanding northbound I-25 by three lanes had a 2075 completion date.
“The state of Colorado faces a significant problem throughout the state,” said Fix Our Roads executive director Sandra Solin. “We’ve got a $9 billion shortfall in this state, and while we talk about the north 1-25 corridor and the south 1-25 corridor and the mountain corridor, but the problems exist everywhere, and the need continues to grow as costs increase.”