Insights: Where does Colorado go next on transportation? The ballot or to gridlock

Author: Joey Bunch - November 16, 2017 - Updated: November 15, 2017

budgetSenate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, and House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, display “The Deal,” a bill that would have ask voters to fund transportation needs with a statewide sales tax last March. The deal, however, was killed by Senate Republicans. (Photo tweeted by the Colorado Senate Republicans press office)

It’s a long road from November to April, and the journey of a thousand political statements began on the first day of this month when Gov. John Hickenlooper rolled out his annual budget request. He sent a message, now I’m sending one, too. We’re headed for gridlock in every meaning of the word.

The governor’s office expects the state budget to grow by about $2 billion next year just to keep pace with growth. But the Democratic governor didn’t request an extra dime for new or wider highways, at least not anything beyond the morsel served up by Republicans who were willing to compromise last spring.

If you buy into the illusion that last session’s Senate Bill 267 will solve congested interstates, then you should shake that ignorance off your face. It won’t. Only a fraction of that money will make it to the interstates, after cities, counties, transit and overconfidence in government wheeling and dealing take out their shares.

Colorado needs $20 billion for transportation just to keep up with growth over the next 20 years. Senate Bill 267 would theoretically pony up as much as $2 billion for transportation, which sounds like a good start.

Tap the breaks. The whole deal depends on selling state buildings and leasing them back, churning out a profit from the mush. Deduct out 25 percent of that money for rural counties, and another 10 percent for transit. That leaves about $1.3 billion for the state transportation system over the next two decades, or about $65 million a year. That still sounds like a lot of money for me and you. But in state dollars, that’s pennies.

Now think about this: The 17-mile stretch on Interstare 25 from Monument to Castle Rock that desperately needs another lane in each direction is expected to cost $500 million. Throw in the $500 million needed to simplify Floyd Hill on I-70 west of Denver, and the $1.3 billion windfall won’t go far toward getting you out of a traffic jam.

If the governor thinks that’s enough … well, the governor surely doesn’t think that’s enough.

But he doesn’t think more money has to come out of the state budget, either.  Hickenlooper isn’t writing a budget here. He is making a friendly suggestion. It’s the legislature’s job — well, the Joint Budget Committee’s job — to write the budget and send it back to him by the end of the next session, though it usually lands on his desk in April.

“The message the governor’s budget sends is that transportation is no longer a priority — that alleviating Coloradans’ growing frustration with congestion in our urban corridors and along our interstates isn’t important enough to warrant a single dollar of our growing sales and income tax revenues, that addressing increasing safety issues along our state’s regionally significant corridors can wait” said Sandra Hagen Solin, who represents Fix Colorado Roads, a coalition of chambers of commerce and other civic groups that have pushed for a legislative solution for years.

“Unfortunately, the governor missed an opportunity to avoid a partisan fight and to lead a strong bipartisan effort to address transportation for the future without affecting the budgetary needs of others.”

Last session Democrats and, at least initially, some Republicans wanted to ask voters to pass a statewide sales tax this week to pay for new roads. Republicans wanted at least some of the money to come from the existing state budget, and ultimately the tax increase failed.

Both sides appear entrenched in those positions headed into the next session in January. Hickenlooper has given the Democrats cover to hold the line on cutting schools or social services for roads. And Democrats control the House, while Republicans run the Senate.

Furthermore, the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce is poised to collect petition signatures to get a tax hike on the ballot next November, even though statewide sales taxes have a terrible record in Colorado. I’ve seen several internal polls from the right and left, and none of them show a tax increase losing badly. And if that happens, I’m not sure where Democrats can go politically to pay for transportation other than cutting the programs they’re now protecting. They could make a big push to repeal the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, but if they can’t pass a tax increase, there’s no reason to believe they can feast on the sacred cow of the Colorado’s conservative believers.

There is one other option, if the legislative Republicans have the backbone to do it, and I don’t think they do.

The Joint Budget Committee, which writes the budget, has six members, three Republicans and three Democrats.

If Republicans are truly committed to using state budget money on transportation, that’s where they make their stand. They can tie up the budget — which the state Constitution requires them to balance — and force a compromise on new tax revenue next year to pass a budget.

Talk is cheap, Republican lawmakers. Roads are expensive.

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.