Transportation Plan Could Get Taxpayers’ Undies in a Wad

If you’re talking to a member of the governor’s blue ribbon transportation commission and the conversation begins, “Transportation is like comfortable underwear,” you’ll know they’re sticking to their talking points. Actually, the entire pitch for a $1.5 billion road and transit plan goes like this:

“Transportation is like comfortable underwear. It’s not fun to buy. But you must have it. And you want it to be clean and without holes.”

That homespun humor will be needed to sell the commission’s recommendation to the governor. The billion-and-a-half-dollar program the commission likes must be paid for with tax and fee increases. The sources of money the commission suggests won’t bring a smile to many faces, and under TABOR – Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights – at least three of the five revenue sources will require a vote of the people.

The blue ribbon commission recommends an average increase of $100 in vehicle registration fees and an additional $6 per day tax on rental cars and hotel rooms. The General Assembly can probably take care of those two things legislatively.

But a 13-cent-per-gallon hike in the motor fuel tax, a .35 percent increase in the sales tax and a bump of 1.7 percent in the fossil fuel severance tax must go on the ballot.

With Gov. Bill Ritter’s desire to put only one revenue measure to a vote in 2008, that’s a problem.

“It could be multiple increases under one question and meet the single subject rule,” Carla Perez, Ritter’s liaison to the commission, told me.

And I could dribble like Allen Iverson.

With health care reform scheduled to kick in by 2010 and a higher ed program still needing lots more funding to remain competitive, the battle of the buck could leave taxpayers’ wallets wounded.

Convincing the public that adequate health care, great schools and good roads are the three prongs on which Colorado’s economy depends will be essential. That’s why when it finished debating its recommendations at a day-long meeting Thursday, the blue ribbon transportation commission got a PR lesson.

“Most people think transportation is free,” commission member and Chamber of Commerce big wig Joe Blake reminded his fellows.

“People need to understand what transportation means in their daily lives,” noted PR woman Kate Horle, who urged commissioners to talk to their fellow citizens as they would talk to her 95-year-old grandmother.

For sure, the simple approach is the best. But even if commissioners and the governor take Horle’s advice and never use terms like “multi-modal” in their conversations, this is going to require a heck of a sales job.

You could tell that in the debate over funding sources. The commission nixed a plan that would have increased the fuel tax 100 percent from 22 cents to 44 cents a gallon.

“It’s an easy `No’ campaign to run when you talk about doubling the gas tax,” one commissioner said.

Getting $500 million from higher vehicle registration fees and getting voter approval for three tax increases isn’t going to be any picnic either.

Only one option that the transportation commission considered would have allowed a strictly legislative fix. That was a half-billion-dollar plan billed as “safety only.”

The commissioners agreed that was not enough. Ironically, the toughest debate was not about the amount of money that needed to be spent, although commission co-chairman Doug Aden suggested that putting forward a $2 billion plan might “cause the report to lose credibility.” The toughest debate centered on the balance between mass transit and highway expansion.

It was a dilemma that the commissioners never quite resolved. But their recommendation to spend $450 million of their $1.5 billion program on mass transit does move the state in an unprecedented direction.

Provided, that is, that the taxpayers don’t get their underwear in a wad when they are called upon to pay for it.