El Paso County voters’ approval of I-25 funding seen as crucial to ‘Gap’ widening
Author: Rachel Riley, The Gazette - September 10, 2017 - Updated: September 10, 2017
Even with two local ballot measures setting aside at least $16 million for widening Interstate 25 between Monument to Castle Rock, officials are nowhere near being able to foot the bill for the project.
No other counties or municipalities have offered to help pay to expand the roughly 17-mile stretch from two to three lanes in each direction, and state transportation officials are far from finalizing a funding plan for the project.
To make it a more competitive candidate for federal grants, the Colorado Department of Transportation is proposing adding one toll lane in each direction on the stretch of interstate known as the “Gap.”
But with CDOT’s annual budget shortfall of about $1 billion and infrastructure improvements needed statewide, the project still has plenty of rivals.
Construction could begin in 2019 if local and state leaders can come up with the $290 million to $570 million needed for the undertaking, according to CDOT.
“A lot has to happen, though, between now and then on the finance and the funding side,” CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said.
Proponents of the measures, which will be on the November ballots of El Paso County residents and those within the boundaries of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, say local commitments make the project a more appealing candidate for federal and state transportation dollars.
County Commissioner Mark Waller, vice chairman of the transportation authority’s board of directors, believes voter approval could be a turning point that encourages other governments in the region to chip in. But the failure of the measures could be a major blow to the project, which he believes won’t get done any time soon without local pledges.
“If these ballot initiatives don’t pass, I think it becomes incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to generate the local revenue to make it happen,” he said.
If voters say ‘yes’ to both questions, $10 million in sales tax revenues collected by the transportation authority will be reserved for the widening, and at least $6 million in excess county revenues will be retained to spend on the project. The $10 million from the transportation authority will be spent on the roughly 2-mile stretch of the Gap in El Paso County if other funding sources are identified. The county funds would be reallocated elsewhere if the Federal Highway Administration did not authorize construction by the end of 2027.
Waller said he hopes his fellow commissioners will allocate about $9 million more for the project in the next two budget years. Some have argued that El Paso County shouldn’t have to cover the cost of a project that lies mostly outside the county, but Waller said county residents will be the main beneficiaries.
El Paso County’s neighbor to the north has no plans to help pay construction costs, said Douglas County Commissioner Roger Partridge. Douglas County provided about $250,000 for a preliminary study needed for the widening and has spent about $8 million on improvements to ease traffic and increase safety on I-25 in the Castle Rock area, Partridge said. In June, he and his fellow commissioners voted 2-1 against putting a measure on a ballot that would ask voters’ permission to use sales tax revenue to pay for road and bridge improvements, including the widening, The Denver Post reported.
Local funding has been integral to the expansion of a roughly 14-mile stretch of I-25 from Johnstown to Fort Collins, which is slated for construction in 2018. Governments within the region provided about $25 million of the $237 million project. The rest was funded by a $15 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, $30 million from the federal government and $167 million from the state.
CDOT Program Engineer Carrie DeJiacomo was encouraged to hear about the ballot measures.
“Any amount right now that we can get to get this project built is critical,” DeJiacomo said. “With today’s funding shortfall, a local match actually helps to leverage a project.”
This year, CDOT plans to apply for two federal grants for the widening with a proposal that includes the added toll lanes, which would be similar to the express lanes on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder, DeJiacomo said.
But transportation officials are unsure how the project will stack up against other applicants vying for allocations and how much money could come from the grants, administered by the DOT’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery programs, she said.
Another option might be a new state law that policymakers expect will generate about $1.8 billion for transportation needs over the next 20 years. The law requires that 25 percent of the funding go to rural transportation projects and another 10 percent to transit, leaving about $1.2 billion for thoroughfares like I-25.
CDOT staff is working on criteria to help the agency’s transportation commission choose which projects are awarded how much.
Transportation Commissioner Rocky Scott, whose district includes El Paso County, is optimistic the expansion of the I-25 Gap will make the list.
“Every member of the commission understands how important it is to get that job done,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect the entire project would be funded, but I’m hopeful that part of it might be funded that way.”
Federal loans, such as those administered through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, might be another possibility, CDOT officials said. The program provided $106.8 million for the roughly $345 million revamp of C-470, according to CDOT.
Whether President Donald Trump will initiate policies or programs that will offer the I-25 widening a boost remains a question. Trump has promised a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan, which could involve selling off public assets to private entities such as toll companies. CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt told Colorado Politics that the only way Colorado highways would qualify for that is to sell toll lanes or complete tolling on stretches of interstate.
Joey Bunch contributed to the reporting of this article.