We need to ‘think big’ on transportation — and then go to the voters

Author: Miller Hudson - January 30, 2018 - Updated: January 30, 2018

Miller Hudson

During the dozen years since Colorado voters lifted TABOR spending limits by approving Referendum C in 2005, legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle have performed an annual charade in which they profess their support for expanded transportation funding. 2018 has proven no different. Yet the record shows, that with the exception of the road and bridge registration fee imposed by Democrats and last year’s Republican provision in SB 267 authorizing state buildings to be mortgaged as collateral against transportation bonds, each a fiscal Band-Aid, the Legislature has consistently failed to propose a comprehensive funding program despite the professed consensus regarding its importance. While congestion grows as thousands of new vehicles are registered each month, our state highways are evidencing growing signs of neglect.

Whether you believe Colorado’s unfunded maintenance backlog is the $9 billion frequently cited by Senate President Grantham, or the $19 billion in deferred projects identified by CDOT, or the $39 billion wish list, including Front Range high speed rail and a MAGLEV monorail from DIA to our central mountain resorts, the persistent partisan squabble over general fund appropriations versus a TABOR election seeking voter approval for a modest tax increase is a debate that fails to match the transportation crisis we face. There was a time, not all that distant, when as much as 25 percent of the state general fund was directed to the Department of Highways. The failure during the better part of the past fifteen years to appropriate general fund dollars to CDOT bolsters the Republican claim that the state budget is indefensible. Yet it is the Byzantine interaction of Colorado’s constitutional tax and spending provisions that have required the Legislature to gut not only transportation funding but higher education as well, in order to meet mandated health care and K-12 obligations.

Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute would like voters to believe that the waste, fraud and budget abuse in Colorado’s general fund hides the billions of dollars that a 21st century transportation grid will require.  This claim is well beyond preposterous. Democrats, on the other hand, routinely argue for a package of tax increases that might match state needs while discounting the use of general fund dollars, which are in keen competition with demands from existing programs.  The truth be told, both camps are right. General fund dollars should be freed to meet basic public safety and maintenance requirements before CDOT experiences a catastrophic failure and consequent loss of life. Voters, on the other hand, should be asked to shoulder the costs of a more crowded future. You don’t have to be a public policy wonk to see that a deal should be possible, even if the Republican position on a TABOR election might be little more than an agreement not to oppose the ballot question.

This past September Phil Washington, previously the General Manager at RTD, and now the leader at Los Angeles METRO, and Peter Rogoff, former Federal Rail Administrator, and CEO of Sound Transit in Seattle, addressed the RAILVOLUTION conference in Denver. Between them they had won voter approval for $180 billion dollars of infrastructure investment in 2016, $123 billion in L.A. and $57 billion in Seattle.  This compares with the $200 billion infrastructure program the Trump White House is considering to jump-start the entire nation over the next decade. When asked why and how they had succeeded, both men said it was important to “think big.” They advanced comprehensive proposals that offered something for everyone and included every part of their communities — encompassing road, transit and technology fixes. California requires a two-thirds approval and Washington secured a 72 percent yes vote. But that approval followed more than 130 public meetings in nearly a dozen regional districts where projects were prioritized, reviewed, reordered and then included in a three phased completion schedule that emerged from grassroots input. These elections were huge “asks” from voters.

The Colorado Legislature has rarely been accused of  “thinking big,” and it’s difficult to imagine it will suddenly start this year. But voters will select a new governor in November, and it would be wise to ask the plethora of current candidates whether they are willing to wake up each morning with an eye on developing a coalition willing to protect Colorado’s quality of life with spending for water projects, improved mobility, accessible health care and academic excellence.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.