Solution to $9 billion budget gap should include alternative transportation, local officials say
March 4, 2017
Colorado is now the second-fastest growing state in the country, and snarls of traffic along the Front Range and up into the mountains certainly attest to that.
The Colorado Department of Transportation currently has around $9 billion in unfunded priorities. While lawmakers wrangle over a funding package to be presented on ballots in November, government officials across the state are urging them to also consider diversifying how the money could be spent.
On Wednesday, 64 of them signed a letter to the leadership of both parties requesting that funding for multimodal transportation — public transit, bike paths, walkways and the like — be a significant part of whatever emerges from the negotiations.
Summit County Commissioners Dan Gibbs, Thomas Davidson and Karn Stiegelmeier were among the undersigned who argued that simply pouring more asphalt isn't the only solution to alleviating the state's mobility woes.
"We feel like you can't just pave your way out of this," said Gibbs. "We need a plan for multimodal transportation: trains, buses, bike paths. Let's not just put all of our eggs in the concrete-for-highways basket."
For years, Colorado has focused most of its transportation funding on roads at the expense of alternative transportation infrastructure; the state ranks 29th in the nation for per capita transit funding at about $2.61 per person per year, according to the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.
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"Until fairly recently, CDOT viewed its mission and lawmakers viewed their mission as paving roads and building highways," said SWEEP transportation program director Will Toor. "There's been a recent realization that our transportation needs are more diverse than that."
Transportation money currently flows through the Highway Use Trust Fund, which allocates 65 percent of revenues to CDOT, 22 percent to counties and 18 percent to municipalities.
Gibbs said he and other elected officials would like to see a new transportation plan set aside money for a broad class of multimodal transportation projects and give local officials discretion in how to use them.
"Summit County has a great transit system, but there are a lot of needs: replacing buses, improvements to stops, improvements for bike paths, improvements for senior van shuttle services," he explained.
The tricky part, of course, is finding the money. The trust fund's primary source of revenue is the state's gas tax of 25 cents per gallon, but that has remained flat since the 1992 passage of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which requires voter approval for any tax increase. (Since the gas tax is pegged to gallons, not dollars, it doesn't rise along with prices.)
The combination of inflation and increased fuel economy over the past two-and-a-half decades has narrowed that revenue stream, contributing to the current funding gap.
"You have 25 years during which the cost of everything has increased but the gas tax has been flat," Toor said. "The buying power is essentially half of what it was, which is the fundamental issue with transportation here."
To close the gap, lawmakers will need to craft a proposal forward attractive enough to voters.
Whatever funding scheme is ultimately presented, Toor said, will likely need to include a strong multimodal transportation component, a boon to Gibbs and the other signatories of Wednesday's letter.
According to a January poll conducted by the Colorado Contractors Association, more than 70 percent of voters are more likely to support a funding measure if it includes bicycle, pedestrian and public transit components.
There's a host of possible funding mechanisms for such a measure. Dan Gibbs, a Democrat, said some are floating a 0.6 percent sales tax increase, projected to raise around $700 million a year.
Republican lawmakers have said they favor a revenue-neutral approach. That could mean drawing from the state's general fund, which bankrolls things like schools, public safety and health care.
"We all recognize that we need to do something about transportation, which is a positive," Gibbs said. "The negative is that no one really knows exactly what to do."
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