Summit County official on state transportation funding: ‘We’re probably going backwards’
Across the state, government budgets are beginning to show signs of recovery.
Local town coffers have been bolstered by strengthening sales tax collections, voters in recent years approved modest increases for fire districts and the schools and even property valuations are beginning to stabilize. On the state level, lawmakers have stopped slashing and the governor’s office has been able to find pockets of money to begin replenishing the K-12 education budget.
But for the Colorado Department of Transportation, the tough times are far from over.
“The budget that began July 1 is about $1 billion, about the same amount of money we’ve had for as long as I’ve been on the commission,” state transportation commissioner Doug Aden, a 16 year veteran of the board representing Summit County and the West Slope, told local officials at a meeting Tuesday. “When you think about the growth in population and all the increased demands on the system, we’re not making much progress. In real terms, we’re probably going backwards.”
Income from the state gas tax — CDOT’s biggest source of revenue — has stagnated. Adjusting for inflation, its buying power for the state transportation agency is backsliding as well, and with Congressional transportation budget decisions on hold, there’s always the risk that federal appropriations could dry up as well.
Debt payments and maintenance on existing roads in Colorado. In need of cash to cover new road projects, CDOT officials used an accounting tactic to free up $1.5 billion to get project proposals — gathering dust on the department’s “shovel ready” shelf — constructed more quickly. From the local perspective, the program, dubbed the Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP), provided a once-in-five-years shot at funding for badly needed road projects, as long as partners, governments and stakeholders could come up with a 20 percent match and have an application ready to go quickly.
“A lot of people are scrambling to get partnerships together and get projects done,” assistant Summit County manager Thad Noll said. “Because, it’s like, if you don’t get your Christmas wish list in today then you don’t get any Christmas presents … for the next five years.”
For CDOT officials, the response to the RAMP program threw into sharp relief the need for highway work across the state. In Summit County alone, several proposals ranging from a $25-million fire suppression system for the Eisenhower Tunnel to a new Silverthorne/I-70 interchange to a highway realignment were submitted.
“We got more than twice as many projects as we’ve got money,” Aden told the Summit Board of County Commissioners Tuesday, when they urged him to consider the completion of the Highway 9 widening project through Iron Springs, in light of the economic value of helping traffic flow through from I-70 to Breckenridge Ski Resort.
In the meantime, transportation and elected officials across the state are looking to a more sustainable solution to the agency’s budget problems: new funding. But under Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), voters have to sign on to any new taxes and polls show there’s little interest in bumping up the gas tax.
Other ideas include bumping the Colorado sales tax by less than a cent on the dollar — a plan that would generate approximately $600,000 per year — and implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax system.
“People are exploring different ways to bring in more revenue to help our critical infrastructure needs,” Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said. “I think we need to think outside the box and be creative. We need to look at all the options.”
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