Colorado air-quality programs lose $31.5 million

Programs designed to improve Colorado’s air quality are taking the biggest hit from a significant federal take-back of transportation funds that occurred at the end of September.

Denver Brown Cloud (Colorado Department of Health and Environment)
Denver's brown cloud (Colorado Department of Health and Environment)

Transportation take-backs, or rescissions, are nothing new for states. But in most years, explained Mickey Ferrell, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s federal liaison, the government requires states to save some of their transportation funding in a Washington account, so that a rescission won’t have real impacts.

“Normally what happens in a rescission is that they take money out of our piggy bank in D.C.,” Ferrell said. “But this year, our accounts don’t have enough money, so they took actual dollars.”

Colorado’s total rescission at the end of September was $114.7 million. Nearly $50 million of that was actual, budgeted dollars, Ferrell said.

Due to the complicated nature of this year’s rescission, CDOT has just now figured out what programs have lost real dollars, said Ferrell. He expected to be able to drill down on impacts to actual projects within the next 30 to 60 days. For now, said Ferrell, CDOT knows that three programs have lost money:

The Construction Mitigation and Air Quality program took the most significant hit, by a considerable margin, losing $31.5 million. The program — which pays for transportation programs that will improve air quality — has funded such projects a Denver initiative to re-time traffic lights in order to reduce idling.

Colorado’s Enhancements fund — which pays for community programs such as bike trails, pedestrian paths, sidewalk projects or lighting — lost $10.6 million.

The Surface Transportation Program-Metro lost almost $8 million. The Denver metro area still has an account balance, said Ferrell, but the Northern Front Range gave up $2.8 million and Colorado Springs gave up $4.9 million.

Ferrell said CDOT has started an analysis of every project in these three categories in order to determine where there might already be cost savings — and where cuts might need to be made.

“We literally have to go dollar by dollar,” said Ferrell.

And while U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado last month vowed to keep working on rescinding the rescission, Ferrell is not hopeful.

“I would find it very unlikely that Congress would be able to go back and redo this,” he said.

Congress wrote the $8.7 billion funding rescission into the transportation law in order to squeeze the act under 2005 budget limits. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, the intent was to eventually find offsets to prevent the payback from taking effect, but Congress never found those offsets.

Critics have argued that the rescission could have been fixed by passing a new version of the federal surface transportation act. Instead, Congress extended the existing legislation, known as SAFETEA-LU, for one month.

Many say that passing a new version of SAFETEA-LU has been a struggle because Congress can’t agree on a new revenue source to pay for it. Currently, it depends on a declining gas tax for much of its funding.

Congress is now trying to decide whether to pass an 18-month extension of SAFETEA-LU — an idea championed by the Obama administration, which would like to put off transportation reform in order to focus on other priorities — or pass a new version much sooner, as U.S. Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, would like to see.

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