Future of Colorado roads uncertain after transportation bill dies in Senate
A new study of traffic on Interstate 70 indicates that efforts to reduce congestion along the mountain corridor by changing driver behavior are showing signs of success, mainly by increasing carpooling and reducing the number of drivers during peak hours.
Still, major infrastructure improvements will be needed to ease the gridlock in the long term, according to the group that commissioned the study.
“We are making positive inroads in changing traveler behavior, but obviously there is plenty of room for improvement,” said Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition. “But relieving congestion ultimately requires large-scale improvements.”
Those may not be forthcoming. On Tuesday evening, the same day the study was released, bipartisan negotiations to close a $9 billion funding gap at the Colorado Department of Transportation appeared to have broken down for good.
House Bill 1242, which would have increased the sales tax rate slightly and raised billions for CDOT infrastructure improvements, enjoyed the support of party leadership in both chambers of the divided Legislature but died on a party-line vote in the Senate Finance Committee.
Supporters of the bill included Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, whose district includes Summit County. He chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, where the bill narrowly advanced after amendments that lowered the rate increase and included transfers from the general fund.
“No one said this was a perfect solution, or that it would have been an easy, slam-dunk sell to voters, but I believe the good in this proposal outweighed the bad and that acting now is far better than continually kicking this can down the road, while the backlog of neglected road work grows worse,” Baumgardner said in a news release. “So I’m disappointed that voters won’t have their say, yay or nay, after having an opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of this proposal in its totality.”
The bill also enjoyed the support of Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, but he was unable to sway some of the members in his party who balked at increasing taxes.
Lawmakers now have until the end of the legislative session at midnight on May 10 to come up with a solution, although it’s unclear whether or not they will aim for another grand bargain after months of closed-door negotiations ended in failure.
If they don’t, some interest groups say they will bypass the Legislature by drafting ballot initiatives, creating the possibility that voters could face several competing proposals in November.
“A citizen’s initiative is what I believe will happen, but I have no guarantee at this point,” Bowes said. “That’s the direction some supporters are saying they want to go. But either way we’re not giving up on this because the need is so great.”
In Summit County, CDOT has identified a range of unfunded priorities that will languish without an infusion of revenue.
Those include capacity improvements on I-70 between Frisco and Silverthorne, and reconstruction of exits 203 and 205 to ease backups there.
Roughly half of the funds generated by HB 1242 would have gone directly to local governments, who could have used them for road improvements and other transportation upgrades, including new bus fleets.
“We have a number of roadway projects that are of high priority that we could certainly use the revenue from HB 1242 to help fund,” county public works director Tom Gosiorowski said in an email earlier this month. “Many of our paved roads are aging and in need of pavement maintenance.”
It’s unclear what shape a new funding measure might take. But Bowes said her organization strongly believes that a new transportation-funding stream is needed.
“Someone’s going to lose out if the money comes from the general fund,” she said. “Our position is that we need a long-term dedicated funding source.”
That’s not included in the counter-offer being developed by Senate Republicans, ColoradoPolitics.com reported. That bill, co-sponsored by Republicans Tim Neville of Castle Rock and John Cooke of Greeley, would put $300 million a year into the state’s highway fund without a tax increase, according to the site’s report, although it couldn’t be confirmed Wednesday night.
Presumably, that money would come from the general fund, and would likely be a tough sell for House Democrats.
“It’s very disheartening that this bill failed after six months of bipartisan negotiations,” said Representative Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, who serves on the House Transportation Committee. “But we will take an objective look at whatever proposal the Senate might produce and see if we can come to a new agreement.”
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