Colo. stimulus money going to small jobs
April 11, 2009
DENVER ” The $400 million Colorado is getting from the federal stimulus package for transportation will replace a bridge over Interstate 25 and also be used to build bike paths, roundabouts and install traffic signals. But it won’t tackle some of the state’s most pressing roads needs.
Colorado Department of Transportation director Russ George says there just isn’t enough money to pay for the really big projects, such as widening Interstate 70 and adding rail service between Floyd Hill and Idaho Springs. That would cost over $2 billion, and no environmental planning has been done.
So Colorado is focusing its limited dollars on relatively small scale projects. Transportation funding has been tight in recent years, and only the smaller jobs are ready to go.
“That’s why we find we can’t do the biggest and the best, even though the money is here,” said George, the former Republican House speaker appointed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
” In southeastern Colorado, U.S. 287 between Campo and Hugo will finally be rebuilt with $16 million of stimulus money. Part of the “Ports to Plains” highway, a trade route envisioned to run from Mexico to Canada, it’s been on the drawing board for 13 years.
” Colorado Highway 9 in Breckenridge will get an extra lane in both directions, improved drainage ” and a relocated bike path.
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” The nearby busy stretch of I-70, which often backs up with ski traffic, will get 14 miles of resurfacing between Vail Pass and Silverthorne, overhauled ramps and electronic warning signs.
A 53-year-old bridge over Interstate 25 south of downtown Denver will be replaced for $43 million, including $22 million in stimulus money. It’s one small piece of a $400 million plan to widen and improve a stretch of I-25 made necessary by the massive T-Rex project. Two bridges that span I-25 just south of Alameda are in much worse shape ” but their replacements won’t be designed until later this year and so didn’t qualify for stimulus money.
A 1.6-mile, four-lane stretch of the I-70 viaduct near the Denver Coliseum, one of the state’s busiest yet worst bridges, won’t be replaced either. That would cost $800 million, more than double Colorado’s stimulus share.
Instead, CDOT plans to spend about $25 million on repairs to get a few more years out of the elevated roadway, which has been rated structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration. Completed in 1964, the span handles an estimated 140,000 vehicles a day.
George insisted that by clearing stimulus projects costing several million dollars apiece, officials can free up money later for bigger projects.
Politics shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to what’s funded: All stimulus projects are approved by appointed state transportation commissioners who try to spread money throughout the state. In all, Gov. Bill Ritter has approved $415 million in stimulus funding for more than 80 highway and transit projects, thanks in part to an extra $103 million targeting mass transit.
Some money is being spent for add-ons like street lights, drainage work and a pedestrian trail near Interstate 25 near Trinidad, which has been under construction for more than a year. CDOT is awarding contracts for its first five stimulus projects, and work is expected to begin on those in May, spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said.
There’s no estimate how many jobs will be created.
Colorado has struggled with transport funding for years. Because of inflation, CDOT says its buying power today is the same as it was in 1983. A flyer distributed to lawmakers shows McDonald’s introduced the McNugget that year, the Denver Broncos traded for John Elway, and former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler was born.
Transport mainly is funded by the state’s 22-cent per gallon gasoline tax, taxes and fees from vehicle registrations, usage taxes and the federal gas tax.
But the state gas tax was last raised in 1991 and hasn’t kept up with construction costs, growth, and more fuel-efficient cars that enable drivers to pay less tax. Lawmakers this year imposed higher vehicle registration fees that will ultimately raise an estimated $250 million a year.
Some Republicans questioned whether the state has enough projects ready for both stimulus funding and new fee revenue. They argue stimulus dollars, which must be committed to projects within a year, could have spared drivers new fees in the midst of the recession.