Transportation bill designates I-70 as high priority corridor
December 7, 2015
Following several short-term extensions, the U.S. House of Representative passed a bill on Thursday that would extend transportation funding for six years. Summit County will benefit from the bill, as an amendment proposed by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, would designate Interstate 70 between Denver and Utah as a high-priority corridor.
With transportation funding set to expire Nov. 20, the U.S. Senate passed a similar six-year funding bill in July before the House passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act this week.
While the House bill allots about $340 billion for federal transportation funding, it is only intended to rely on three years of guaranteed funding.
"Roads and bridges are frequently multi-year capital projects. You need a reliable source of revenue," Polis said. "Part of the flaw in the bill is that it only has funding for about two years … What we really need to do is have a robust funding mechanism to make sure we can invest in infrastructure — not contribute to the deficit — but do it in a sustainable way."
A last-minute amendment would provide an extra $40 billion to help fund the bill for six years but would rely on spending cuts or tax increases to generate that funding.
"There are several potential funding mechanisms, but that's really what Congress has not been able to agree on," Polis added. "Instead, they've cobbled together a few small things to create two years of funding."
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Still, local entities praised the bill for the increased consistency, after the last long-term transportation bill expired in 2014. Colorado Department of Transportation communications director Amy Ford noted that half of Colorado's transportation funding stems from the federal level.
"It gives us some certainty in moving forward with different programs," Ford said. "It's a certainty that allows us to do longer-term planning."
An amendment to designate Interstate 70 as a high-priority corridor was "made in order" on Thursday and was approved in the final draft of the bill. The amendment would give the stretch of I-70 west of Denver an edge in applying for federal funds.
"We were very excited to have that included in the final bill," Polis said.
High-priority corridors are given preferential consideration in applying to discretionary grant programs, such as the Transportation Infrastructure and Financing Act (TIFIA), which allows states to apply for loans on specific projects.
The designation would also give the I-70 corridor an advantage in applying for funding through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, a highly-competitive grant program that has helped fund projects such as the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel fire-suppression system.
"Having that designation, knowing the I-70 corridor could be more competitive, would encourage application for more federal funds," said Margaret Bowes, I-70 Coalition program manager. "It's recognizing that it's an important corridor for a state or region. In our case, it's the only east-west Interstate through our state. Commerce is very dependent on it, our tourism sector is very dependent on it; it's easy to justify this designation."
According to an April 2007 study conducted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the total cost of I-70 congestion for Colorado's Mountain Resort Region was estimated at $2.1 million per year. In addition, the study noted that, if tourism activity in the region falls by just one percent due to traffic congestion, state, county and city sales-tax revenue would decrease by $1.2 million.
"On behalf of the Colorado Department of Transportation, I want to thank Congressman Polis for his amendment to designate Interstate 70 between Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah as a High Priority Corridor," CDOT executive director Shailen Bhatt said in a statement. "This amendment rightfully recognizes what the people of Colorado already know: That Interstate 70 is not only important regionally, but nationally as well."
In the future, CDOT is looking to work on an expansion of I-70 westbound from Floyd Hill to Empire. CDOT has not yet determined whether the project would be another express lane, or another type of project.
In Summit County, improvements to the I-70 Silverthorne interchange are listed as a future project. An auxiliary lane between Frisco and Silverthorne is also listed as a priority.
RUNNING ON FUMES
While the funding extension is a step in the right direction, federal and state transportation funding are still operating in a deficit, as Colorado is about $1 billion dollars short per year in funding.
The federal gas tax and state gas tax, the two primary sources of the state's funding, have both remained untouched since 1993.
"It's clear that the gas tax is a struggling, somewhat dying tax," Ford said. "As you look at increasing fuel efficiency in vehicles, it's tremendously impacting the efficacy of the gas tax."
Following in the steps of Oregon, Colorado is testing a program to raise transportation funds using a fee based on the number of miles traveled rather than gas usage. Ford said about 100 vehicles would participate in the "road usage charge pilot" by the end of this year.
Assistant county manager Thad Noll noted that, as Summit continues to expand, more road maintenance is required, and additional funding is needed.
"Somehow, we have to come up with some new paradigm for transportation funding," Noll said. "We can't continue to fund transportation with fossil fuels when we're trying to get rid of fossil fuels."
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