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Colorado failing to build for growth

Posted at 2:45 PM, Feb 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-02 20:43:29-05

COLORADO SPRINGS — The State of Colorado is failing to spend enough money to build the highway infrastructure it needs to keep up with a growing population. Nearly half of the Colorado Department of Transportation's $2 billion budget will be spent this year simply maintaining our existing highways. Years of putting off expansion projects have led to a $9 billion backlog of improvements that would only bring the highway system up to meet today's population demands.

In our Driving Change series, News5 is taking a closer look at how Colorado pays for roads and how our highway funding fell so far behind.

The largest single source of revenue for road construction and maintenance is still the gas tax. Anywhere from $0.60 to $0.65 cents out of every dollar CDOT spends comes from the federal and state gasoline taxes paid into the Highway Users Trust Fund (HUTF). Vehicle registration fees make up about $0.21 cent per dollar.

CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew says gas tax has been steadily losing its buying power.

"It's a mechanism that's served us well overtime, but for a lot of reasons, it is becoming outdated," she said.

It's outdated because gas taxes are set at a fixed amount. Coloradans has consistently paid $0.40 per gallon of gas in taxes ($0.22 state/$0.18 federal) since the final season of the Cosby Show was on TV in 1992.

In the meantime, cars and trucks have become more fuel efficient, meaning we buy gas less often. Three decades worth of inflation have also nearly about tripled the cost per mile to build a new road.

"Imagine trying to pay your mortgage today with your paycheck that you had back in 1992," said Andy Gunning, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments. "That's basically what we're looking at from the HUTF fund and the fuel tax that flows into it at the state level."

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, state lawmakers boosted highway funding by redirecting a percentage of the state sales tax to roads in an amount equivalent to what was brought-in from new car sales. They also squirreled away two-thirds of any budget surplus for roads. Those measures were repealed during Great Recession and haven't been replaced.

"The state is not prioritizing road spending, it's just that simple," said John Caldera of the Independence Institute.

He championed Proposition 109, the Fix our Damn Roads ballot question, during the 2018 midterms. The failed measure would have forced lawmakers to spend 2 percent of general fund revenue on roads.

Caldera said state legislators resist new efforts to spend state sales and income taxes on road improvements.

"They certainly have the money; they have the money to put one out of every four Coloradans on Obamacare, they have the money to pour into education in unprecedented amounts," Caldera said. "Every single budget item in the state is growing, but not for roads."

Lawmakers have made limited transfers from the General Fund to the HUTF in the three most recent sessions, including a one-time $100 million dollar transfer last year.

Even with that extra money, Lew says the scale of our need is much higher.

"We just have to prioritize resources, just like we prioritize resources in our own budgets at home," she said.

Lew looks to the expansion of US Highway 36 between Denver and Boulder as an example of a ideal system for designing highways in the future when both money and land are scarce.

"It's one of the few arteries where we've seen congestion go down," Lew said. "And part of the reason for that is the new lane that we added, it's a managed lane, it's one that gives drivers the opportunity when they need it and when they want it, to have that accelerated service. But it's also a lane that serves one of the most effective bus services in the state."

Still, efficiency alone won't be enough to keep pace with our growing population.

"Our revenue forecast shows that we can only generate a little more than half of what we actually need over the next 25 years overall, as far as federal, state, and regional, local revenue, that's getting generated to support the system," Gunning said.

He thinks the recent failures of statewide ballot questions looking to grow transportation funding failed because of a lack of trust by voters. In El Paso County, voters approved and then re-approved the 1% Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (PPRTA) sales tax. Colorado Springs went a step further in 2015 and authorized an additional 0.62 percent sales tax for street paving and pothole repair under ballot question 2C.

The PPRTA money has built scores of major projects around the region including West Colorado Avenue and the redesigned Woodmen and Union Interchange.

"Our success here throughout our region is that we tell voters what they're going to get, that we're going to improve this roadway basically from here to there, and we stick with it," Gunning explained.

Neither Proposition 110 nor Proposition CC contained a sunset provision for when tax increases would end. Proposition CC also lacked a defined project list.

Gunning says there's more stake than just traffic congestion when we fail to build up our highway infrastructure.

"There needs to be, I think, more community and more statewide recognition and buy-in that this is about quality of life, this is about our economic vitality as a state and a region."