U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner says tax reform could jumpstart infrastructure spending during Summit County visit
A decade ago, a study commissioned by the Denver Chamber of Commerce found that congestion on Interstate 70 was costing Colorado more than $830 billion in lost economic activity every year.
Since then, things have only gotten worse, particularly in the mountain corridor where narrow, steep and windy terrain forms a choke point. Highway closures are common here, particularly in the winter, and each hour that cars aren’t moving costs about $1 million in stalled commerce.
For the people who live here, however, these numbers are just abstractions.
“If you live in Summit County, it’s a road you use to go to church or to take your kids to school or to the soccer game — it’s like our Main Street,” Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said on Friday during a visit by U.S. Senator Cory Gardner.
Gardner, a Republican, was meeting with local members of the I-70 Coalition, a group of governments and businesses from Jefferson to Eagle County that advocates for improvements to the strained highway.
Hopes that the state Legislature would infuse the Colorado Department of Transportation with some badly needed cash died last session, so talk at the meeting in the Frisco Town Council chambers quickly turned to how the federal government could help — perhaps with President Trump’s promised infrastructure funding package.
“Tax reform is next, but I think infrastructure is going to be toward the tail-end of that,” Gardner said. “I do think if you do the overseas earnings part of that right, you can use that tax reform to kick start your transportation effort and your infrastructure effort.”
Gardner was referring to Republican plans to lower corporate tax rates and encourage companies like Apple to bring back some of the trillions of dollars they have collectively parked in foreign countries with lower rates.
That, he said, would provide a source of revenue to repair the nation’s aging infrastructure, including parts of I-70. The Republican leadership is pushing hard to bring a tax overhaul to a vote near the end of October. If that happens, Gardner said, it could springboard into transportation spending.
“I’ve always thought that infrastructure would probably be something we’d look at at the beginning of 2018, just based on what needs to get done before then,” Gardner said. “Tax reform is critical to that because that’s such a big opportunity for us to really spike the economy … if two trillion dollars all of the sudden comes back into the country, that’s a pretty big economic jolt. And if 100 billion goes into transportation from it, that’s pretty significant.”
Gardner also said that any transportation-funding package at the federal level should focus on high-growth areas. His home state would certainly fit the bill. Growth on the Front Range is especially pronounced, and every weekend its effects ripple up the mountain corridor.
“We’re one of the fastest growing states, and that’s going to require some infrastructure to keep up with, and we know that up here because we can feel it,” Gibbs said.
The first weekend in August, he noted, set a new record for traffic through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel, with roughly 158,000 cars and trucks passing through.
“And there’s no reason to think that record won’t get broken again next year,” Dillon Mayor Kevin Burns added.
The I-70 Coalition has identified a list of projects designed to meet the needs of the mountain corridor through 2050. None of them, however, have funding sources, along with roughly $9 billion in projects on CDOT’s statewide wish list.
Still, there was an understanding in the room that asphalt alone won’t solve the growing traffic problems, especially in the mountains where land is scarce.
“It’s tough to build our way out of this problem right now, but we’re looking at what else we can do with travel demand management, getting people out of cars, multimodal transportation and those types of things,” Breckenridge town manager Rick Holman said.
Technology is another promising aspect on that front. CDOT’s RoadX initiative, for instance, promises to use innovation to make the state’s roads safer. It’s short on specifics but emphasizes the eventual use of smart roads that communicate with vehicles and autonomous cars that in turn “talk” to each other to keep traffic flowing swiftly and safely.
For the time being, however, the reality is clear: more paving is needed, and it won’t get done without money.
“The technology solutions are going to be great,” Gardner said. “But we need improvements now, right?”
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