UPDATED: Wheel of fortune: How do we pay for roads and bridges?

(Photo/Thiophene Guy, Flickr)
(Photo/Thiophene Guy, Flickr)
State lawmakers continue to be divided along party lines on a controversial Senate bill that would raise vehicle registration fees $32 a year to pay for badly needed road and bridge repairs.

The bill’s main impact would be to boost vehicle registration fees $32 annually, raising a little over $200 million in its first year to fund transportation infrastructure repairs, including the state’s 126 structurally deficient bridges. It’s cruising through the statehouse under the catchy slogan-title Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery or FASTER.

In subsequent years the fee increase would go up to $41 per vehicle, raising about $250 million a year. But since state officials say they need $500 million a year just to repair and maintain the current system of roads and bridges, the bill proposes other possibilities for closing that funding gap.

The most controversial of these is a voluntary pilot program called Vehicle Miles Transferred or VMT, which would study an Oregon system in which drivers pay fees based on how many miles they drive rather than paying a tax on every gallon of gasoline they buy.

VMT uses a GPS system to track the miles each participant drives, but some rural lawmakers say that would be unfair in areas where towns are much farther apart.

“Obviously folks in rural areas who travel long distances — and that’s most of my district — probably would not be really interested in that,” said Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon.

Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, whose district encompasses most of northwestern Colorado, agreed that the wide-open spaces of the Western Slope make VMT a nonstarter for his constituents, but he added there’s also something somewhat sinister about it.

“There is a concern about Big Brother knowing what the heck I’m up to, and that’s just a natural reaction to government looking over our shoulders –- particularly in the western part of the country,” White said. “We tend to be a little more independent and like a lot less oversight than maybe others in other parts of the country.”

Also still on the table is the possibility of tolls being imposed on existing roads. That’s something most Western Slope lawmakers, including Gibbs, strongly objected to last year.

“With the tolling, the local community would have the power of whether or not it would be something they’d be interested in pursuing,” Scanlan said. “As a rule, I don’t like tolling. It hurts our economy more than it helps any of our transportation needs.”

FASTER, sponsored by Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, made it out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 6-4 party-line vote Tuesday. Democrats steadfastly argued higher fees are the only way to raise money to fix the state’s crumbling highways and bridges, but some say now is not the time to hit Colorado residents with more fees. The full Senate will now debate the bill.

The previous state Legislature was roundly criticized for failing to come up with a transportation bill last session, making SB 108 a critical test for lawmakers this time around.

White said he expects the full Senate to drive a hard bargain on the bill but ultimately reach some compromises.

“We will pass a transportation bill. I don’t sense that either caucus is inextricably deadlocked and unable to reach consensus,” White said. “We’ll get to consensus on a bill that we can get passed and will provide some relatively quick relief for transportation funding.”

White, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee (JBC), said he expects the vehicle registration fee will come down some, and that the bill will ultimately wind up raising somewhere between $125 million and $200 million a year.

But at some point he said it will be up to voters to find more money for the rest of the repairs and maintenance that gas taxes simply aren’t covering. This bill, he said, will likely just be a stopgap measure until the economy improves and voters are more willing to tax themselves.

“So ultimately to solve the problem we’re going to have to have the buy-in of the citizens who either do or don’t recognize the need for additional transportation funding and who either are or are not willing to fund it,” White said.

The state’s TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) law necessitates any sales or income tax increase going to a public vote, meaning fee increases are really the only tool available to lawmakers.

UPDATE: Senate Republicans and Democrats smoked a peace pipe Wednesday in their heated debate over a transportation funding bill called FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery). See: Lawmakers reach compromise on transportation funding bill


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