Colorado lawmakers set aside $2 billion for road projects. But where will the money actually come from? | SummitDaily.com

Colorado lawmakers set aside $2 billion for road projects. But where will the money actually come from?

Summit County transportation officials finished a big, wish-list item this week with the Highway 9 Iron Springs bypass, a two-year, $23 million project hailed as a boon to safety and traffic flow between Breckenridge and Frisco.

The project was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak outlook for Colorado's roads, which have a $9 billion project backlog. But the crowning touch on Iron Springs, expanding the two-lane stretch of highway between Frisco and the hospital, is in funding limbo, along with the county's other big projects.

Those include an extra eastbound lane on Interstate 70 between Frisco and Silverthorne, overhauls of the Exit 203 and 205 interchanges and extra lanes on Vail Pass. An enormous, wide-ranging bill signed into law in May, the Sustainability of Rural Colorado Act, was supposed to provide nearly $2 billion for projects like those, with 25 percent of the money reserved for rural counties.

But six months later, no projects have been selected under the Senate Bill 267's convoluted funding scheme, which shuffles around badly needed funds without providing the cash infusion road officials had hoped for.

"It's not what anybody really needed," assistant Summit County manager Thad Noll said. "We didn't need to get a loan, we needed to get new dollars."

The bill, described by some lawmakers as a "casserole," covered everything from school funding, the marijuana tax, the statewide tax revenue cap to Medicaid reimbursements for hospitals.

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In one of its layers, lawmakers set aside $1.88 billion for projects that the Colorado Department of Transportation has marked top priorities. But that money isn't a simple appropriation, and CDOT will be required to pay some of it back.

"That's what was really kind of unusual about these funds," CDOT spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said. "It wasn't like it was new money. … It's almost like a loan."

Trulove said the exact proportion to be paid back hasn't been determined yet, and that the Legislature could make up for it with a general fund transfer.

In an email, Trulove said that the money is supposed to start coming in next year, with an estimated $342 million in the first installment. (In another wrinkle, the full $1.88 billion might not even materialize because it's being generated through lease-purchase agreements on state-owned buildings.)

Barring an intervention from the Legislature, however, some of the money would have to be repaid later on.

"I think CDOT is assuming that a lot of that money will come from their future maintenance dollars," Noll said. "That is problematic, and it's a backward way to fund projects."

CDOT's Transportation Commission has been mulling these issues since the bill's passage. The agency will have a better idea of where funds will go in March, Trulove said.

Given the uncertainty of the repayment scheme under SB 267, CDOT will be selecting projects based on only two years of funding, or $880 million, according to agency documents.

Local officials hope some of it will go to a handful of Summit County projects, most of them on Interstate 70.

"I was pretty excited about the rural projects funding provision in SB 267, and I hope that this provision will end up providing project funding for Summit County," county public works director Tom Gosiorowski said in an email.

But, like Noll, he had reservations about how CDOT would repay the borrowed funds — and if the Legislature would make up for them through the general fund.

"As I understand it, the primary problem is the monies borrowed with SB 267 must be repaid. … So I have some doubt as to whether (the bill) will ever actually be utilized," he said.

Across the board, transportation officials are hoping for a statewide transportation funding measure next year that would allow them to scrap the elaborate mess contained in SB 267.

The State Legislature nearly passed a bipartisan funding compromise last session, but it broke down after an intraparty rebellion on the Republican side.

Business groups are said to be working on a similar funding measure that could be put directly to voters next November. It would likely use a slight increase in the sales tax to create a dedicated funding stream for CDOT, which has steadily lost gas tax revenue from decades of inflation.

"I think that's been one of the challenges is that we were asked to put together these infrastructure dream lists and yet we still don't know where that money is coming from," Trulove said. "And that's why this next potential ballot issue is such a big deal for us, because we would be able to get some of these more high-priority projects."

Noll is also holding out for a grand funding measure next November. But until then, he said the county will be lobbying CDOT to include its projects on the SB 267 shortlist.

He said he was hopeful that the Highway 9 expansion from Frisco to Iron Springs would make the cut because it would be a relatively small project that would tie together a decade of improvements on the Frisco-to-Breckenridge corridor.

"We're hoping and pushing for funding under that bill to help us get this section done in the next few years," he said.

Top-priority Summit County road projects

I-70 Exit 203 Interchange — $10.98 million

I-70 Frisco to Silverthorne auxiliary lane — $15.89 million

I-70 Exit 205 Interchange — $24.33 million

I-70 Vail Pass third lanes (Eagle County side) — $225 million

Source: Colorado Department of Transportation