Colorado House advances transportation compromise

Author: Joey Bunch - May 7, 2018 - Updated: May 8, 2018

I-70 West near Georgetown. (Photo by Sparty1711, istockphoto)

The Colorado House of Representatives on Monday evening gave preliminary approval to a transportation compromise worked out by Democratic and Republican leaders in the legislature.

Senate Bill 1 calls for an additional $50 million annually in transportation spending, as well as money from last year’s Senate Bill 267 to borrow $2.35 billion. The bill depends on $495 million for transportation already in this year’s budget along with a proposed $150 million next year.

The bill represents a major infusion of cash, but local governments would get nothing in ongoing transportation funding after a couple of years, and electric-vehicle drivers would pay more to support roads and bridges.

The bill also requires the Colorado Department of Transportation to do a study on the controversial issue of toll lanes on the interstates as a way of raising money to pay for free lanes.

“I think we’ve had this conversation all session,” House Transportation Committee chairwoman Faith Winter, D-Westmister, told the House Monday. “And we all know transportation is important. We all know our roads are failing us. We all know traffic is getting more and more congested.”

She said the bill provided “a fiscally responsible amount of bonding.”

Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, is one of the sponsors of the original bill that has since been heavily amended. Originally the bill would have taken 10 percent of the state’s sales and use taxes to replay $3.5 billion in bonds to address the state’s highest priority needs.

The Senate unanimously passed an amended bill to take a flat $250 million annually out of the budget using general taxes. It still called for $3.5 billion in bonds, but put off asking voters for permission until November 2019.

The bill as it’s currently written under-funds transportation, Buck said as she tried in vain to restore the bill to its original $3.5 billion in bonding.

“This just does not cut it,” Buck said of the amended bill.

Democrats are concerned that committing $250 million annually toward transportation would mean less money for schools and other government services and programs when the economy slows and the budget tightens.

“It’s an important step forward that does not put out other priorities in this state at risk,” Winter said of the newer version of the bill.

Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, gave a closing remark. “I’ve got just two words for you to close this debate,” he said, “disappointing and inadequate.”

Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Roxborough Park, said the net gain the budget for transportation is so small it wouldn’t cover much more than rebuilding one major intersection a year.

“This is basically thumbing our nose at people around the state and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we kind of listened to you, but what we want to do is let someone else put a ballot initiative out there to raise your taxes, because we don’t want to spend the money we have,” she said.

Competing ballot measures

Two ballot measures proposed for November could affect the package, however. A Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce-led coalition is considering several possible ballot questions to ask voters to raise sales taxes by varying amounts up to a penny.

A competing ballot measure first reported on by Colorado Politics Monday, called “Fix Our Damn Roads,” would require the legislature to fund transportation without new taxes. It also would authorize the legislature to borrow $3.5 billion.

Both ballot questions would give the legislature the authority to issue bonds. If both fail, lawmakers would ask voters in 2019 to allow the state to borrow money using the proceeds of SB 1.

But first, SB 1 must get the votes in needs in the House, then return to the Senate, where the changes could be accepted or go to a committee made up of members from both chambers to work out a compromise.

“This is not something that would be the ideal for either one of us,” Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, told reporters in his office Monday afternoon, alongside House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.

“But the reality is we are in a split legislature, and sometimes that’s when we do our best work, when we have to look at the other side and come up with some solutions that fall somewhere in between,” Grantham said. “And I think that’s what we’ve done here.”

Duran said the money set aside this year and potentially next year would be divided with 70 percent going to state projects, 15 percent to local governments and 15 percent for “multi-modal” needs, such a buses and bike lanes.

After that, 85 percent would go to the state for high-priority projects — such as widening Interstate 25 north of Monument and Denver, plus the I-70 mountain corridor — then 15 percent  would support transit and other alternative transportation.

Business groups have watched the process closely, hesitant to support new taxes but consistently supportive of a solution.

The state needs $20 billion over the next two decades to keep up with growth, in order to support jobs and convenience, neither of which benefit from traffic jams and potholes, they say.

“The legislature’s agreed-upon road package is a tremendous win for both individual motorists and businesses alike,” said Mike Kopp, president and CEO of Colorado Concern. “This bipartisan deal represents the largest new investment in the state’s infrastructure since Gov. Bill Owens’ TRANS package was approved by voters nearly 20 years ago, and possibly the largest single roads bill in Colorado history.”

Fix Colorado Roads, a statewide coalition that has been working on the transportation funding issue for years, also was hopeful bout bonding for roads.

“In the face of much skepticism that a bonding deal could be struck this legislative session, the SB 1 compromise marks a victory for bonding and provides an incremental step in addressing our state’s transportation crisis,” said the organization’s statehouse representatives. “The work is not over. Voters will have the chance to voice their own opinion on the best funding option moving forward.”

Kopp, a former Senate minority leader, proposed a public show of support for the bill.

“Tomorrow morning, every driver in Colorado should honk their horn a time or two in thanks to legislators for coming together and making progress on our multi-billion-dollar transportation infrastructure needs,” he said.

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.