Western Slope lawmakers eye stimulus funds, tax hikes for roads, bridges

While some Western Slope politicians are eagerly eying their slice of the federal stimulus package pie expected from the Obama administration early next year, other lawmakers are already starting to craft a long-term funding fix for crumbling infrastructure at the state level.

According to the Grand Junction Free Press, a group of Mesa County leaders called the Grand Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, representing the towns of Fruita, Palisade and Grand Junction, on Tuesday planned to hand Democratic U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar a 17-item wish list of everything from new wastewater treatment plants to road-widening projects to new hybrid buses.

The nearly $234 million list included projects all believed to fit the parameters of the stimulus package, which will likely require they be “shovel-ready” in the next six months. That meeting with Salazar, however, was canceled because of a series of massive snowstorms buffeting western Colorado.

Other area lawmakers say federal money may be a nice one-time injection of cash in order to immediately address critical infrastructure shortfalls for crumbling bridges and roads, but it won’t provide a long-term funding source to maintain and upgrade the state’s highway system.

Transportation funding tops most Western Slope lawmakers’ lists of top-priority legislation for the coming session of the new state Legislature, slated to begin the first week of January in Denver.

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel he wants to leverage the state’s assets –- such as buildings and mineral tax revenues –- to perhaps avoid new fees and taxes to fund the state’s $1.5 billion transportation-funding shortfall.

“A lot of states are being creative, leveraging assets so that the default isn’t a big tax or fee increase. I think we can do the same,” Penry said. “The benefit to doing it this way is it’s a proven approach, legally, that can be done immediately so those dollars can be in the economy. We can be fixing bridges across the state of Colorado by March and April, which has economic benefits as well.”