Solutions to State’s Transportation Problems Going Nowhere

PhotobucketFew know the condition of the state’s highways and roads better than the director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, Russell George. He commutes to Denver from his Rifle home almost every weekend, more than 400 miles round trip on Interstate 70.

At Saturday’s Club 20 spring meeting in Grand Junction, George reviewed the study by Gov. Bill Ritter’s Blue Ribbon Transportation Panel that looked into funding the state’s growing transportation system. He noted that in addition to the problem finding billions of dollars to repair Colorado’s crumbling transportation infrastructure, there’s the dilemma of how to raise trillions more to expand it.Club 20 is a civic and political organization that represents the interests of 23 counties west of the Divide in issues such as growth, energy development, the environment, transportation and public policy. Although the meeting agenda included other issues, with the recent debate about toll roads on I-70 and a shortfall projected in the state budget, the transportation segment garnered a lot of attention from local and state government officials and Club 20 members.

“Colorado used to increase the state tax on gasoline to improve our roads,” George explained, “but in 1992, TABOR changed the ability of the Legislature to regulate these taxes to cover expenditures. At the same time, federal highway funds have been reduced, constructions costs have risen and the mileage driven has skyrocketed — CDOT can’t keep up with the demand,” he said.

Ritter appointed a Blue Ribbon Transportation Commission, made up of a 32-member statewide panel and a 19-member advisory committee, to study Colorado’s future transportation needs. CDOT staff and consultants also worked on the project. Results of the study are available here.

“The panel looked at what we had and what we needed,” George said. “At first, they took funding off the table and studied transportation as it pertained to the economy, personal liberties and quality of life. They looked at other means to move people by public transportation. After it was all said and done, the Blue Ribbon study went full circle — our ability to keep up with transportation needs was all about money.”

In a panel discussion about transportation, Jennifer Schaufele from the Denver Regional Council of Governments said her group hasn’t made any official comments on the study. “The funding mechanism is definitely the sticking point,” she said.

George feared Coloradans have lost the connection between public funding and transportation costs. He wondered if the time had come to have the political discussion about how to increase funding or let the system come to a crisis.

“People take our roads for granted,” added Colorado Transportation Commissioner Doug Aden. “So unfortunately, they won’t react until the crisis is upon us.”

Aden noted that Referendum C was helpful to CDOT but that more than half the funds generated go to pay debt service on recent Interstate 25 projects. The federal gas tax trust fund will go insolvent in 2009 unless Congress takes action.

“This discussion is probably for way in the future, but maybe Colorado needs to make transportation a utility,” George said. “It puts transportation out of state government and into an enterprise status. Then CDOT can raise fees accordingly to pay for transportation needs to meet the demands.”

Talking about transportation problems may be a priority, but funding the solutions are not. Tax proposals for the fall ballot so far don’t include gasoline tax increases to subsidize CDOT.

“People say they don’t want toll roads; they want free roads,” Schaufele said. “Unfortunately, there are no such things as free roads.”

Top photo: Construction signs at the closed DeBeque bridge.
Second photo: CDOT Director Russell George at Club 20.
Photos by Leslie Robinson