State Sen. Dan Gibbs (D-Dillon) took his controversial transportation-funding bill on the road over the weekend, in an attempt to get out in front a fickle public that has been largely unwilling to increase taxes for road and bridge fixes in recent years.
Gibbs’ bill (SB 108), with the catchy acronym FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery), would raise registration fees by $41 a year for a vehicle weighing between 2,000 pounds and 5,000 pounds, which would affect more than 4 million cars and trucks in Colorado.
That would generate more than $250 million a year to fix the Colorado’s crumbling roads and bridges, but state officials say around $500 million a year is needed just to repair and maintain the current system.
Because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), the state Legislature is only able to address the shortfall through fee increases. Any efforts to increase gas, sales or income taxes to find a permanent funding source have to go to a public vote — an unlikely scenario in the current economic climate.
Gibbs portrayed FASTER as a small first step until there’s more of an appetite for a transportation tax-increase ballot question. And he added that federal stimulus dollars aren’t the long-term solution either.
“The latest numbers I’ve heard so far reflect that Colorado could bring in about $522 million for transportation [from the stimulus bill], which would be great, but it’s just like winning the lottery. It’s one-time money and it’s not sustainable in any way,” Gibbs said.
“That’s why I’m working on this FASTER bill, because that’s actually sustainable, it’s responsible and it’s not mortgaging our kids’ future more or less.”
Republicans have hammered on FASTER because they say it’s a fee increase during a bad economy, an end-around TABOR and unpalatable because it keeps tolling on existing roads on the table as another possible funding source.
Not a single Republican in the Senate voted for the bill when it passed 19-16 last week, and another brutal partisan battle is expected in the House. Rep. Christine Scanlan (D-Silverthorne), who joined Gibbs for a town hall meeting in Vail over the weekend, joked that tolling was put back into the bill — after initially being taken out during Senate debate last week — so the House would have something to take out again.
Gibbs, who along with Scanlan fought two bills last year that would have imposed tolls on Interstate 70, said the difference with FASTER is that tolling would be left up to local governments.
“This allows local communities to decide what they want to do in their area, and there has to be local consensus within an area that would be impacted,” Gibbs said. “If Vail wanted to toll an area within their region and [the nearby town of] Avon didn’t, there would never be tolling. It puts together a cooperative type of agreement.”
According to Gibbs, the state gas tax, which is 22 cents a gallon and hasn’t increased since 1991, simply does not keep pace with the demands of increased traffic and heavier vehicles. Scanlan added a transportation tax increase of some sort on the ballot is inevitable, but she doubts it will happen this year.
“There’s more talk in the House about doing [a ballot question],” Scanlan said. “It’s just that it’s a tough climate to do that in and there’s no money to fund the campaign that it would take to do it. Eventually that has to happen. We will have to go to the people and make the argument around what those dollars are needed for.”
Scanlan added the gas tax (the federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not gone up since 1992) is clearly an outmoded method of funding road repairs and maintenance.
“As cars are getting more and more fuel efficient, you get more and more hybrids on the road, you get electric cars coming onto the road, the impact to the road remains the same — those vehicles are still taking a toll on the road — but the gas tax that supports the maintenance and upkeep is having less and less of an impact,” Scanlan said.
Gibbs expects his bill to change even more in the House, where Republicans continue to put forth other funding alternatives, but he said it’s imperative the Legislature take action on roads immediately because of the deteriorating condition of roads and bridges and the potential for FASTER to create 10,000 jobs.
“The bill will dramatically change when it heads over to the House, so the numbers will change, but I’m really hoping to get this through,” Gibbs said.