Transportation in Colorado called a glass half full, but lawmakers contributed only a sip

State transportation director Shailen Bhatt told leaders in Colorado Springs Tuesday morning he chooses to see a glass half full after the legislature adjourned last week.

That only proves Bhatt is an optimist. Against $20 billion in projected needs over the next two decades, the General Assembly came up with just $1.88 billion, and even that number is misleading. Clogged interstates, such as the 17-mile stretch between Monument and Castle Rock, will get only a fraction of that.

Rural communities get a quarter of the new money created by Senate Bill 267. Transit gets 10 percent, and the Colorado Department of Transportation has to pony $50 million from its already stretched maintenance budget.

“We’ll be taking a small amount of peanut butter and spreading it on a big piece of toast,” Bhatt said after his talk.

He was scheduled to speak in Pueblo, Vail, Grand Junction and Durango Tuesday as part of Infrastructure Week, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s observance of the state’s critical needs.

Bhatt wished he could deliver them all good news to those communities about their local projects, but his promises would be as empty as his pockets.

“Everywhere in this state there are incredibly important projects just waiting to go,” he said. ‘What I don’t get to do today is go to all these places and say, ‘You get a project and you get a project …’ ”

Bhatt and other transportation leaders on Tuesday spoke of their concerns about the eventual economic impact of traffic jams and dilapidated roads and bridges.

Two bills that would have asked voters to approve billions of dollars in new money died in the Republican-led Senate.

One would have asked voters to approve a 0.50 sales tax increase and the other would have done away with the flat $3 price for tags on vehicles 10 years or older.

Instead, lawmakers reclassified a fee on hospital beds that will cost Coloradans on their refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of rights.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers thanked his city’s residents for voting last month to forego up  to $12 million in TABOR refunds to pay for stormwater improvements. In 2015, Colorado Springs voters passed Ballot Issue 2C to create a 0.62 percent sales tax to raise $50 million annually for five years to pay for transportation needs.

“We’ve just begun our journey in terms of infrastructure,” Suthers told the crowd assembled at The Antlers hotel Tuesday morning. “We still have work to do in the 2C effort … I really applaud those voters who stepped up in this regard.”

Suthers, a former state Republican attorney general who is being considered by President Trump to be the next FBI director, advocated for both taxes. Many of his GOP counterparts in the legislature lacked the “political courage” that Bhatt said conservative leaders in states such as Utah have shown to raise money for transportation.

Of Colorado lawmakers, Suthers said, “They stepped up a little this year, but they need to step up more.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper was disappointed that legislature couldn’t deliver on what Democrats and Republicans cited as their top goal for the four-month session. He is considering calling a special session.

Meanwhile, groups such as the Independence Institute, the Denver-based libertarian-leaning think tank, are considering ballot initiatives in November. The Independence Institute would ask voters to require lawmakers to find money solely for roads and bridges in the existing state budget, which is $28.5 billion for next year.

Other ballot issues being discussed could ask voters to approve an increase in the state’s sales or gas taxes with a portion of the money going for transit projects.

Mark Waller, an El Paso County commissioner and a former House minority leader in the legislature, said the costs and responsibility have to shared by local, state and federal sources to tackle such major projects as interstates 25 and 70.

“We don’t get this done unless we all work on it together,” he told the chamber members.

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