State transportation event delivers no news, except that leaders optimistic, dedicated, talking

Author: John Tomasic - February 22, 2017 - Updated: February 22, 2017

State Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, left, and, far right, state Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, talk transportation funding, Feb. 21, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
State Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, left, and, far right, state Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, talk transportation funding, Feb. 21, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

The bad news is that Colorado Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham shared no new information Tuesday night at the north Denver ICOSA Event Center about the progress of high-stakes negotiations at the Capitol over state transportation funding.

The good news is that the vision of the two leaders sharing a stage and a vocabulary and many of the same goals for the ongoing talks was surely reassuring to the audience of business and economic leaders in attendance, all of whom are hoping desperately that a deal will be struck at the Legislature this year to raise billions in funding to upgrade the state’s crowded and crumbling roads and bridges.

The event, hosted by the Fix Colorado Roads coalition and the Colorado Business Roundtable, has generated buzz for weeks. Moderators asked soft questions and told polite jokes. Staffers readied craft beer and snack platters for a post-panel mixer. Attendees hoped a breakthrough — large or small, scripted or unscripted — might emerge under the stage lights in the friendly room. But it was to no avail.

Duran and Grantham were never caught up in the moment. They admitted to no advance from weeks past in negotiations. They related no evidence of recent exchanges. There was no color from the Capitol offices, no anecdotes of dealmaking. In other words, no meat for members of the audience to bring home to feed their hungry constituencies.

Attendees shrugged when the meeting was over, but they didn’t seem disappointed.

It was clear that the point of the meeting was always less about gleaning information from the participants than it was about demonstrating support for their efforts and to encourage them to keep talking. In pop psychology terms, the hosts were attempting to wrap the legislative leaders in a cone of support.

Sandra Hagen Solin, spokesperson for Fix Colorado Roads, moderated an opening panel. She thanked members of the coalition for working for years on the issue. “We’re thrilled that we’re at an inflection point,” she added in a jaunty voice.

Shailen Bhatt, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, gave a presentation in which he made the case for action. He clicked through slides with graphs and charts.

Colorado ranks at the bottom half by most transportation measures. The state is one of a small group of states that relies on the federal government to provide some 70 percent of transportation funding. The “system reliability” is low and dropping fast. There’s no predicting how long it will take to get from her to there. Spending per person is dreadful. In 1991, Colorado spent $125 per resident on transportation. That amount is now $69. Roads never expand but the population explodes year to year.

“People say, ‘Why can’t you do more with less?’ We are doing more with less,” Bhatt said. “And we’re all living with the outcomes.”

“We’re all hitting pot holes. Our goods cost us more. When delivery trucks are stuck in traffic, that expense gets passed on to you as the consumer.

“This has been painted as a red state-blue state issue, or as a ‘Democrats only raise taxes’ or as a ‘Here in Colorado, real Republicans don’t raise taxes.’” Bhaat said. “But there are no Democratic highways and no Republican bridges. Everybody, regardless of your political affiliation, uses these roadways. Some of the states who have raised their gas taxes or sales tax last year — Texas, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska — these are the reddest of the red states.”

Bhatt explained that red states invest in roads because it’s a about increasing essential business competitiveness. “Utah wants our business,” he said.

Lawmakers intend to place a referendum before voters asking to raise money to back billions in bonds. For that reason, Grantham told the audience that it doesn’t really matter what approach he would prefer or what approach Duran would prefer. He said whatever agreement they come to will have to pass the Republican Senate, the Democratic House and then win a vote of the people.

Duran ticked off areas of agreement so far reached among legislative leaders.

In addition to sending a referendum to voters asking them to vote for new revenue, lawmakers aim to secure about $3 billion in bonding backed by $250 million to $300 million in revenue; they want to give local governments more power to decide how to spend transportation funding; lawmakers support more diverse mobility that gets beyond commuter car driving; and they want to develop a more reliable and fair revenue stream than the stagnant gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in Colorado since 1991, when all of the vehicles on the road still ran on gasoline.

“There will be a solution. We’ve already agreed to an arm wrestle,” joked Grantham. “We have hurdles to overcome. I know this is complicated. I know it’s gonna be tough between here and there. But I’d rather have gotten this done than not.”

“People are truly depending on us to do what’s right,” said Duran. “This is about people who can’t afford to live close to where they work… It’s about much more than simply saying it’s a ‘comprehensive transportation plan.’ This is about people in Colorado who want to ensure they continue to have a great quality of life for themselves, for their families and for generations to come.”

As the lawmakers exited the stage and mingled with the crowd, the unsurprising impression was that any deal must end in something that Republican and Democratic lawmakers can sell back home.

Republicans will have to be able to pitch the deal to constituents as a narrow proposal drawn up by a small government that is efficient and sufficient as well as transparent and accountable.

Democrats will have to be able to sell it as a longterm solution that moves the state beyond the state’s grinding year-to-year status quo, a plan that doesn’t cut into vital health and education funding and that embraces on some level the future of transportation — or as Duran put it, a plan that looks to “move bodies not just cars.”

So talks continue.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.