EconomyElection 2018News

Business leaders urge Colorado House to fund transportation

Author: Joey Bunch - April 9, 2018 - Updated: April 23, 2018

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Kelly Brough TransportationKelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, talks at the Capitol Monday urging lawmakers to pass a major transportation bill, pending in the House. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

A group of business leaders Monday called on the legislature to do, well, something to make sure more tax dollars go into Colorado’s long-neglected transportation system.

At a Capitol press conference, they urged the passage of Senate Bill 1, which is pending in the House. The bill would obligate $250 million a year from the state budget to repay $3.5 billion in bonds for projects over 20 years.

Democrats, who hold a majority in the House, have signaled they will demand more money for local governments and transit than the Senate bill provides.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously on March 28. The House has not yet scheduled it for a committee hearing. If it’s amended, which is nearly certain, it would have to go to a joint House-and-Senate committee to work out a compromise for both chambers to vote on before the session ends on May 9.

In its current form, the legislation schedules a statewide vote in November 2019 to allow the state to borrow the money for bonding

“I will tell you from the chamber’s point of view, I don’t believe the state has enough money to solve everything they need to solve,”  said Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, who spoke at the event.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has estimated it needs $20 billion to catch up with growth and keep up over the next two decades, but Colorado voters have proven reluctant to pass statewide taxes.

Leading a statewide coalition of business and elected leaders, the Denver chamber has filed paperwork on a handful of potential ballot questions this November, including one that would fund only municipal, county and multi-modal needs.

Brough said the coalition would have to make a decision about whether to proceed to the ballot, if lawmakers take the money from the budget.

“Bond questions are difficult on a statewide basis,” said Mike Kopp, the former Colorado Senate Republican leader who is now president and CEO of the Colorado Concern business coalition.

If a sales tax and bonding proposal passes this November, however, it could negate the need for a 2019 vote, under the current wording of the bill.

Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads, a statewide coalition pushing for a funding fix, said in a statement that Senate Bill 1 “assures transportation is a state funding priority long-term and is imperative to keep us on the right road of congestion relief and economic prosperity for the next decade.”

Brough and Kopp said there is common ground among those who support differing proposals.

“One, is we want money for transportation and we strongly support Senate Bill 1 to help us get there,” she told reporters. “And, two, we’re right at the table to help continue to improve that bill.”

The business leaders said jammed and neglected roads represent a cap on Colorado’s economic growth.

Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, said the bill represents progress on a long-overdue fix to fund transportation.

“We need to actually shift from neutral and put this into drive,” he said.

There are plenty of transportation funding supporters on the left — albeit with a lean toward transit and alternative transportation methods, such as bike lanes — but they don’t want to see the state budget obligated with long-term debt, however.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver said she welcomed the dialogue on transportation.

The budget this year includes $500 million for transportation, though it is a one-time infusion.

“That’s a great start to the multi-year effort we’ll need to get our state’s transportation systems up to speed,” she said. “But I want to remind everyone that there’s no shortage of underfunded priorities in our state budget, and we should be seeking a balanced approach. I will support measures that fund transportation without threatening K-12 education.”

While the state is flush with cash this year, in lean years the bonds would have to be repaid before providing money to schools and social services, Duran and others contend.

“Of course, transportation should be a top priority and that’s why the legislature should make a historic one-time investment in transportation this session, and why we need to ask voters for a new, dedicated revenue stream for bonding this fall,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center in Denver. “Anything other approach is simply borrowing trouble for all the other needs this state has.”

Former Boulder Mayor Will Toor, who is transportation program director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said Senate Bill 1, as it’s currently written, ignores local governments, despite the fact most of the state’s roads are managed by city and county governments. It also puts in just 10 percent for transit.

“SB 1 also effectively prohibits toll lanes and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, assuring that new highway capacity will be general purpose lanes that — like the ineffective I-25 expansion through south metro Denver — will be clogged within a few years of completion,” he said in an email to Colorado Politics.

Danny Katz, state director the left-leaning CoPIRG consumer group, and Rachel Grace Hultin of Bicycle Colorado said a transportation fix must include transit and multi-modal options.

“While we agree our transportation system needs a significant increase in funding, that investment must include significant funding for transit, walking and biking,” Katz said. “Widening highways is not a long-term solution to congestion, because without providing options the growth in vehicles in our state will erase any gains on our highways and add additional pressure to our local roads.”

Hultin said a transportation plan needed to be “responsive to local needs, provide freedom for residents to choose how they get around their communities and ensure tax dollars are spent to benefit all Coloradans, not just people who drive.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.