Competing Colorado transportation propositions battle it out on the ballot
Colorado voters have a lot to consider as election day inches closer, with the races for governor and attorney general heating up along with major ballot initiatives surrounding education spending and campaign contributions. But one topic sure to generate debate ahead of voting is transportation.
Two transportation initiatives forced their way onto the ballot for this November, providing radically different solutions to Colorado’s traffic woes. For voters seeking to address the unsightly $9 billion backlog in the state’s transportation projects, the question is a philosophical one: to raise taxes or not to raise taxes.
Proposition 110, commonly referred to as “Let’s Go Colorado,” seeks to raise the state sales tax rate by 0.62 percent from 2.9 to 3.52 percent for 20 years starting on Jan. 1. In addition, the initiative would authorize $6 billion in bonds up front to fund transportation projects.
According to Let’s Go Colorado, the tax would raise in excess of $760 million in dedicated transportation funding in its first year alone. If passed, the initiative would divvy up the sales tax revenue between high-priority Colorado Department of Transportation projects, local governments and counties, and multimodal transportation initiatives. Forty-five percent of the revenue would go directly to 107 priority CDOT projects, 40 percent would be returned to counties and local governments to prioritize projects in their communities, and 15 percent would go toward the Multimodal Transportation Options Fund for improvements to mass transit and walking and biking paths.
“Let’s Go Colorado has the benefit of being a statewide comprehensive solution,” said Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition and strong proponent of Proposition 110. “It addresses the 107 projects identified as statewide projects. But it also offers additional funding to our towns and counties, and dedicates money to multimodal projects like bike lanes and pedestrian improvements. We view it as a well-rounded solution, and a win-win on every level for the state.”
The competing measure, Proposition 109 or “Fix Our Damn Roads,” would authorize $3.5 billion in bonds to fund statewide road projects — namely bridge expansion, construction, maintenance and repairs — without raising the state’s sales tax.
The proposition would prohibit state agencies from using the funds for ancillary costs like administration or broader transportation initiatives such as multimodal projects. Instead, Fix Our Damn Roads intends to fund a set list of 66 CDOT tier-1 road projects, looking to make as immediate an impact as possible. The initiative would leave it up to future legislators to find a way to repay the $3.5 billion in authorized bonds from the state budget.
“Fix Our Damn Roads is not a silver bullet through our transportation woes,” said Jon Caldara, chief sponsor of the measure and president of the Independence Institute in Denver. “It’s a way to fast track our most needed projects that have been ignored over the last decade.”
Pros and Cons
Proponents for Let’s Go Colorado argue that the 20-year tax increase is a more permanent solution to subsidize the state’s fledgling 22-cent gas tax, Colorado’s primary revenue generator for road repair and construction, which hasn’t been raised since it passed in the early ’90s. The tax would also mean that out-of-state visitors would be helping to fund Colorado’s transportation projects.
Backers of the initiative also point to its flexibility in allowing local governments to prioritize their own projects, and to address issues on a broader transportation spectrum.
“Mountain communities are becoming more interested in transit solutions that get folks out of their vehicles,” said Bowes. “Let’s Go Colorado offers funds for multimodal projects. If local governments want to spend money on bike or pedestrian paths, they have the flexibility to do so. But the statewide share also means some significant improvements to I-70 as well as other highways that run through our communities.”
Opponents of Let’s Go Colorado argue that the initiative lacks definition in the projects it will fund, asking Coloradans to bet on the unknown.
“Most of the money goes to unknown projects,” said Caldara. “We’re looking to fast track the most needed projects, but the tax increase is really just a bloated wish list of mystery projects that will siphon money away from roads and into transportation projects, which is one of the reasons why it will go down in flames.”
Caldara also argued that Coloradans would simply refuse to approve a sales tax, further delaying any meaningful policies to address growing transportation funding concerns.
“I don’t know if the people in Vail want to have a 21 percent tax increase to buy bike paths for the people in Denver,” said Caldara. “It’s a non-starter. In political reality, do we do something to start fast tracking the most needed projects, or do we do nothing?”
On the other side, proponents of Fix Our Damn Roads argue that the responsibility to raise funds shouldn’t be on the public, but instead on the state government to fill in the gaps.
Caldara referenced a number of state funded projects he views as wasteful like funding the new CDOT headquarters and providing corporate welfare and tax incentives for Hollywood films, claiming funds should be going to roads instead.
Caldara referenced a 1999 transportation funding initiative passed under Governor Bill Owens called TRANS, which provided $1.7 billion in bonds to accelerate transportation funding on 28 road projects across the state as a similar success story.
“They were able to jump start projects around the state without raising taxes by bonding money to get this done,” said Caldara. “It was done on time, on budget and paid off. Sadly we’re in a situation where the state Legislature has simply refused to fund new roads. Now is the time to put that money into fixing our roads.”
Backers also point to the set list of projects to be funded as a positive, removing guesswork from how the funds will be used.
Opponents of Fix Our Damn Roads say that leaving it up to future legislatures to pay the debt is dangerous, and could potentially pull funds from health care, education or other funds.
“It feels fiscally irresponsible,” said Bowes. “Those dollars will have to come from somewhere. When the next economic downturn hits, it could be even more difficult to find the money to pay that debt. It’s just an irresponsible way to fund our needs.”
Additionally, the relatively narrower scope of projects set to be funded means less agency for counties and local municipalities.
“It dedicates zero dollars to local communities,” continued Bowes. “It’s limited to basically highway improvements, and it leaves towns and counties out of the equation.”
Regardless of which proposition ultimately garners more support, most agree that transportation is an issue that needs to be tackled sooner rather than later. A report published earlier this year by TRIP, a private national transportation research group, reveals some sobering numbers.
According to the report, 40 percent of major urban roads and highways in Colorado are in poor or mediocre condition, and 6 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient.
The study also estimates that roadway features are likely a contributing factor in one-third of fatal traffic crashes, and that Colorado motorists spend an excess $1.9 billion annually on additional vehicle operating costs as a result of poor road conditions.
CDOT’s 2017 Transportation Deficit Report also reveals serious funding issues. According to the report, the cost of sustaining current performance of pavement, bridges and maintenance will result in a 10-year deficit of $1.8 billion. The cost of achieving CDOT’s “vision” targets for these assets would lead to a 10-year deficit of $3.8 billion.
The report concludes: “The demand in Colorado for smooth pavement, sound bridges and regular highway maintenance is outpacing CDOT’s revenue growth. Even maintaining current conditions would lead to deficits in the scenarios described in this report and leave little to no funding for expansion.”
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