Groups around the state are talking about transportation funding but a new poll shows voters may not be ready to approve a tax backing the state's highway system.
In a recent survey of more than 1,000 voters, nearly half of respondents said they would describe the quality of the state's roads and bridges as excellent or good, and less than 33 percent are willing to pay an additional 5 cents or more for gasoline to improve Colorado's transportation system.
The news is discouraging for officials and government groups interested in taking a gas or sales tax increase question to boost funding for the cash-strapped Colorado Department of Transportation to voters in the foreseeable future.
"A huge percentage of Coloradans already think that our roads are decent," said Dan Gibbs, Summit County Commissioner and chair of the Colorado Counties Inc. transportation committee. "You're not starting at a good spot if people don't think there's a problem."
CDOT's annual budget has fallen by approximately half a billion dollars in the last several years. The remainder is just enough to cover the on-going maintenance costs of Colorado's existing highway system, with little left for road upgrades, major improvements or what is most needed on the Interstate 70 mountain corridor - projects to increase capacity.
CDOT's primary revenue source, a 40 cent per gallon gas tax, has been stagnant for more than 20 years and its purchasing power has diminished by half in that timeframe.
"It's kind of a going-out-of-business model for state highway systems under the current funding mechanism," CDOT director Don Hunt told the Summit Daily News in a 2010 interview. "Colorado's going to grow from 5 million people to 7 million people, they say, by 2030. That's going to create more congestion. We don't have any money for new capacity."
The grim numbers have generated two conversations around funding models for future highway projects: taxes and tolls.
While CDOT officials have warned the public to expect the latter to be part of any future capacity expansion projects on I-70, other groups across the state - particularly those representing local governments, who under state statute, could get a cut of a transportation funding tax - are now talking about the first option.
But the possible return isn't significant for an agency that needs an additional $300 million per year just to stabilize existing roads.
If voters approved a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, and the poll indicates they likely wouldn't, the hike is expected to generate approximately $264 million dollars on average over the next 10 years, a portion of which would go to local cities and counties per state statute. CDOT's cut would be only $158 million.
Upwards of 65 percent of respondents to the poll, all of whom are voters, were willing to increase their annual taxes to improve Colorado's bridges and roads, they just preferred to see a sales tax increase, rather than a hike on gas taxes.
But the return on the floated 5 cent sales tax increase 58 percent of respondents said they would support would funnel only an additional $173 million into CDOT coffers annually.
Still, officials say the option of a ballot measure remains on the table.
"Just because it might not poll really high right now, doesn't mean that passing something is impossible," Gibbs said. "You have to educate people sometimes. You're just starting at a lower point."
CDOT officials say they are party to, but not the driving force, behind ballot question conversations.
"We're just an agency participating in these conversations," spokesman Bob Wilson said. "We're not heading up the effort."