Congressional deadlock holds CDOT in suspense | SummitDaily.com

Congressional deadlock holds CDOT in suspense

Elise Reuter
ereuter@summitdaily.com

An August 2010 study of the Interstate 70 Mountain Corridor showed problem areas and travel demand (organized by mile marker) that the Colorado Department of Transportation hopes to improve with several long-term changes to the highway. However, future funding for the projects is unclear, with federal tranportation funding discussions held over until October.

In a letter to the House Transportation and Infrastructure committees, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, urged Congress to approve a long-term transportation funding plan that would give Colorado more certainty in moving forward with key projects. Unable to agree on a long-term funding renewal, Congress passed a three-month extension of current transportation funding levels on July 31, reopening the debate on Oct. 30.

The Colorado Department of Transportation's resources are spread thin, as a federal flat tax on fuel has not changed since the '90s, with an 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax and a 24.4-cent per gallon diesel tax.

Amy Ford, CDOT communications director, said that nearly 50 percent of Colorado's transportation funding stems from the federal level, bringing more than $400 million annually. These funds, in addition to a statewide fuel tax that has also not changed since the '90s, are crucial to transportation infrastructure across the state.

"Congress must pass a forward-thinking, long-term surface transportation reauthorization that draws on a predictable and sustainable source," Polis wrote in a Sept. 4 letter to House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster and ranking member Peter DeFazio. "It also requires that we focus our limited resources on programs that have a track-record of success."

Polis pushed for the prioritization of the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP), Surface Transportation Program (STP), Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) and the Congestion Mitigation and Mitigation Air Quality Program (CMAQ). He also addressed the need to eliminate remaining earmarks, abolished by Congress in 2010, which can prevent the use of much-needed funds when attached to an inactive project.

"The surface transportation authorization — which provides federal contract authority for construction projects — is on the verge of expiring. And the Highway Trust Fund — which supplies the federal share of transportation infrastructure funding to states and municipalities nationwide — is weeks away from running out," Polis urged Transportation Committee leaders.

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October's transportation debate would address funding for federal-aid highway programs, highway-safety programs, public transportation programs, highway trust fund expenditure authority and several other issues. The main point of contention between the House and the Senate concerns the timeframe for the renewal of current transportation funding, with the Senate supporting a six-year renewal, while the House proposed an extension through December.

Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said that, historically, the transportation bill has been a six-year funding bill to ensure an amount of certainty for transportation planning on the state and federal level.

"It's unfortunate and sad that Congress can't pass a meaningful long-term funding bill," he said. "Transportation has never been a partisan issue. It's always been about 'What are the needs of the states, what are the needs of federal infrastructure?'"

THE COST OF THE CORRIDOR

With a rising population creating increased transportation needs, the Colorado Department of Transportation is struggling to fill all the needs between conducting crucial road maintenance and adding needed improvements to alleviate congestion. While CDOT has created a list of improvements for the Interstate 70 mountain corridor — the main artery connecting Summit County to the Front Range — the total price far exceeds CDOT's annual budget.

The full list of both short-term and long-term improvements includes two express lanes, with the eastbound lane set to open this year, a third bore through the Eisenhower Tunnel and an advanced guideway system, to the tune of $3 billion to $4 billion. CDOT's budget saw a slight increase this year, at $1.4 billon.

"You can't plan for a billion dollar project on the I-70 Mountain Corridor when Congress keeps extending funding for few months at a time," Gibbs said. "If it doesn't pass a major transportation funding bill, it's going to be difficult to see even short-term projects on I-70 … I applaud Congressman Polis for thinking of the long-term transportation needs in the state of Colorado."

The I-70 east viaduct in Denver, a large bridge connecting several major transit networks throughout the state, is another costly, but crucial project. Originally built in the '60s, the viaduct is in need of serious structural repairs, with the cost of an overhaul approaching $1 billion.

In addition, Ford said that Colorado saw an $800 million per year funding gap between funding levels and state transportation needs.

"It's a significant challenge. We look very closely at what's happening at federal level," Ford said. "That uncertainty at federal level, with brief extensions, keeps money going a little bit, but it makes it very difficult for us to do long-term planning."

Colorado is ranked 32nd in the country for surface pavement. However, the state has seen improvements in bridge repairs and traffic safety, ranked 16th and 18th respectively, in part due to increased funding from vehicle registration fees.

"We're using as much of our very limited dollars as effectively as we can," Ford said. "We really urge Congress to pass a long-term funding bill."