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Joey BunchJoey BunchSeptember 7, 20174min113
Update: Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, provided Colorado Politics a statement Friday morning: “We know transportation is already costing Coloradans billions of dollars a year — $6.8 billion to be exact. That’s what we lose to our deficient roads in lost time, damage to vehicles and lost gas […]

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Joey BunchJoey BunchAugust 23, 20177min1000

The Trump administration’s talk of a major infrastructure bill should not only look at modernizing the nation’s highways and broadband, but it also needs to lay a new foundation for water infrastructure, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said Wednesday.

The Denver Democrat touched on a variety of issues during a luncheon speech at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs. He was scheduled to host a town hall in Steamboat later in the afternoon, the most recent in a series of a 17 public meetings around Colorado that Bennet has convened during the congressional August recess.

“We need to make sure our water systems gets just as much attention as highways and broadband,” Bennet told the audience of more than 300.

He explained that members of Congress are looking for ways to bring the public and private sectors together and inject new capital into rural water projects. He is already talking to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local banks and investment companies to think that through. He asked the audience, which includes virtually every major water official in the state, to help figure out how to develop ideas to finance projects in ways that he said should make sense.

Bennet has already had a fair amount of success in finding federal funding for Colorado water. In the past few years, collaborating with other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, Bennet said the state has won funding from the Department of Agriculture through the 2014 farm bill for water projects. That brought in about $26 million for projects impacting the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, the new Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland and other projects across the state.

Bennet also said he has invited the new secretary of agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, to visit Colorado to see the condition of the state’s national forests. “If you live downstream of Colorado,” and Bennet said millions of people in 18 states do, “you should care about the health of our forests.”

“We’ve done a lot of work together on water and climate,” Bennet said. “The country is looking for leadership in a way that isn’t partisan, and Colorado is a perfect leader to meet that challenge.”

In a question and answer session following his remarks, audience members were just as interested in seeing what Bennet can do to address Washington gridlock as they were on climate change and water issues.

“I spent my whole first term trying to demonstrate to the people of Colorado that their government could still work, at a time when we thought it was pretty dysfunctional,” he said.

Few senators were going home to talk about what they accomplished with members of the other party, he said, preferring to spend time lambasting the other side.

Bennet pointed to several instances in which he worked with Republican senators during his first term, including as a member of the so-called “Gang of eight,” a group of four Democratic and four Republican senators that crafted immigration reform legislation. The measure overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate in 2013 but never came up for a vote in the House.

He also noted more successful efforts to speed up timelines for drug approvals with the Food and Drug Administration, legislation developed with Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina; and his work on the Every Student Succeeds Act, along with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

But the 2016 election has produced a new level of dysfunction, he indicated. “Now it’s a little bit different – we have the dysfunction we’ve had before, and the budget issues from before. The priorities of Washington are decoupled from the priorities of Colorado” and the rest of the country. He said he could not have ever imagined that Trump “would be the remedy for that gap.”

Today, not only does Washington still operate in dysfunction, but that is now overlaid with a rejection of traditional American values, Bennet said. “When I think of President Trump, I do not think about the people in my state who are conservative. I don’t see their agenda in what he’s doing.”

Bennet said the mission of all Americans today must be to stand up for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, checks and balances in government, and for the importance of the free press. And “we have to hold people in my job to a much higher standard. If we held our members of Congress to the same standards as county commissioners, this nonsense would be over in a minute.”

There’s a fundamental concern about where the nation is headed, and “it’s all of our job to figure out how to fix it,” Bennet concluded.


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Ernest LuningErnest LuningAugust 20, 201722min1211

Doug Robinson compares winning the Republican nomination for governor of Colorado to getting hired after a really long job interview, and he believes his background and experience will give him the edge. One of seven declared GOP candidates for next year’s election — with at least three heavyweights waiting in the wings — Robinson speaks highly of his leading primary opponents but suggests his experience founding and running a financial firm that advised technology companies sets him apart.


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Joey BunchJoey BunchAugust 14, 20178min2330

By chipping away at The Gap, El Paso County voters could do something that some state legislators encourage and others dread: siphon off support for a statewide transportation plan by spending their money locally.

The Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority board last week approved a ballot question to ask voters if it’s OK to set aside $10 million to help pay to widen a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 25 in El Paso County. The seed money is part of a larger effort to widen the interstate from Monument to Castle Rock, a 17-mile stretch known as The Gap.

I-25 narrows to two lanes in each direction between the two reasonably well-off communities, causing traffic jams and collisions. The state Department of Transportation says it doesn’t have the money in its current budget, and state lawmakers haven’t figured out a way to get them enough. Statewide, CDOT needs $20 billion over the next 20 years just to keep up with growth, the agency contends.

CDOT has estimated the Gap will cost $290 million and $600 million. Colorado leaders have even appealed to the White House for help, calling the Gap a critical transportation corridor.

If voters allow it, the PPRTA would put up $10 billion for roughly a 2-mile stretch in El Paso County, if other money joins it. Where that money comes from, nobody knows.

President Trump has promised a $1 trillion national infrastructure investment, but it remains to be seen if he can pass it and how much, if any, would go to Colorado’s overburdened interstates. The result of getting that money, however, could mean toll roads.

The Gap is one of the three main arguments for voters and lawmakers to find money to address the state’s critical transportation needs. As symbolic projects go, the Gap joins I-25 from Denver to Fort Collins and the Interstate 70 mountain corridor as the chief selling points to statewide voters.

Legislators in the last session discussed a sales tax to pay back a $3.5 billion loan for projects statewide, including the Gap. Three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, including Colorado Springs’ Owen Hill, didn’t like the tax increase and voted down the bipartisan House Bill 1242.

Colorado Springs leaders were skeptical of raising the state sales tax, since  cities rely on sales taxes. Hiking the state sales tax would make it more difficult for local governments to pay for local projects in the future. The Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corp. preferred lawmakers look instead at the state gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991.

Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver warned before the session started that if lawmakers didn’t pass a statewide plan, then communities such as El Paso County that can afford to pay for local needs won’t later support state money for communities that can’t.

El Paso County is proving she’s right.

Proponents of the El Paso County plan hope putting up local money will spur financial support from other local governments and make the project more attractive for federal and state dollars.

“Taking this to the voters shows consensus and solidarity and support,” said Jim Godfrey, chairman of the PPRTA Citizen Advisory Committee, which unanimously favored adding the issue to the ballot. “It would be hard for the state to ignore if we put money up against it.”

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Douglas County, told Colorado Politics in June that communities should work on such local options, because statewide solutions are slow and elusive.

El Paso County voters might have the chance to approve another source of funding for the project, as well.

The County Commission is weighing options for what to do with about $15 million in excess tax revenue. Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, limits annual growth of some local government tax revenue and requires the surplus be returned to taxpayers or used for voter-approved purposes.

 

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller hopes another ballot question will ask voters if some of the county’s revenue surplus — he’s pushing for $7.5 million — should go toward the I-25 widening. Commissioners have until Sept 8 to add issues to the ballot and finalize language.

The I-25 Gap Coalition, made up of state officials and local leaders from communities along the roughly 17-mile two-lane stretch of road, met for the first time in June to explore options to speed the widening.

“This is a huge step forward to get this on the ballot,” said Waller, vice chairman of the PPRTA board of directors and a former state House minority leader. “In order for us to be able to really make the case to the state and the federal government, it needs to be a collaborative effort.”

State and local leaders have so far been unsuccessful in identifying other sources of funding for the Gap, which state transportation officials say could be finished by 2021 if the money is available. Two federally-required environmental planning studies, paid for by money originally earmarked for the C-470 Express Lane, are currently under way, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Wilson.

CDOT hopes to find some contributors by the end of the year, Wilson said. Federal grants or state funds are two possibilities. In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law Senate Bill 267, a bipartisan omnibus bill aimed much more at helping rural hospitals and rural transportation than clogged interstates.

By monkeying around with how an assessment on hospital bed occupancy and selling and leasing back government buildings, the legislature thinks it can generate more than $1.8 billion for transportation over the next 20 years. But 25 percent off the top goes to rural counties and another 10 percent to transit. The rest of the money hasn’t been attached to specific projects yet. The Gap won’t get much in the next few years against many competitors for a divvied-out share.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct that Chris Holbert is the Senate majority leader not the house leader.


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Peter MarcusPeter MarcusAugust 9, 20174min88
House Speaker Crisanta Duran is outraged over recent comments by her Republican counterpart suggesting that Democrats have a “plan” to destroy Colorado’s roads. Calling the comments from House Republican Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock “absurd,” Duran, a Democrat from Denver, pointed out that she worked this year for a bipartisan solution to come up […]

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