FASTER feuding still festers as lawmakers search for short-term solutions to gridlock

While the battle over controversial FASTER vehicle registration fees rages on in the state House, Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon – whose legislative predecessors made a priority of transportation funding – is pushing hard to find solutions for the growing gridlock along the Interstate 70 corridor.

Hamner, who was appointed to replace Christine Scanlan when she took a key post in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration, is following in Scanlan’s footsteps by shepherding through a bill aimed at compelling the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to find short-term fixes for traffic congestion along the critical east-west corridor into the mountains.

House Bill 1210 (pdf), which passed 50-14 on final reading in the House Wednesday, requires CDOT to come up with a list of short-term priorities to improve mobility on I-70, including costs and possible funding mechanisms. The bill also provides for public hearings on the various options, which presumably could include last year’s oft-discussed “zipper lanes.”

Hamner clearly recognizes big-ticket fixes like high-speed rail are likely decades away.

“Tourists and residents alike are affected by I-70 traffic,” Hamner said Wednesday. “While long-term structural solutions are needed, they are also expensive. However, this will help us to find innovative and cost-effective ideas to relieve congestion now. This bill makes sure we stay focused on finding short-term solutions in the meantime.”

Scanlan was a key high-country House ally of former state Sen. Dan Gibbs, a Silverthorne Democrat whom she replaced in the House. Gibbs got FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery) passed back in 2009, raising vehicle registration fees to pay for badly needed road and bridge improvements, including 128 bridges deemed structurally deficient at the time.

Many Republicans railed on FASTER as a backdoor tax, and it became a Tea Party rallying cry leading up to the 2010 election. Democrats beat back an attempt by Republicans last week to eliminate FASTER altogether, killing Senate Bill 95 (pdf) in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

“This was our opportunity to be responsive to the people of Colorado who have been demanding that we repeal the increased vehicle registration fees,” SB 95 sponsor Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, said in a release Wednesday.

Now Grantham is the Senate sponsor of House Bill 1084 (pdf), which would at least roll back the mandatory late fees of up to $100 imposed under FASTER. Those late fees have provided an unexpected windfall of about $30 million a year for state transportation projects, but have drawn heated fire from motorists who fail to register their vehicles on time. The old late fee was $10.

Sponsored by Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, HB 1084 will likely make it out of the GOP-controlled House but die in the Democrat-controlled Senate. During last week’s broader debate over repealing FASTER altogether, the increase in registration fees – originally projected to provide CDOT about $250 million a year in additional funding – was portrayed as both a life-saver and a job-saver.

“FASTER helps us reduce crashes and fatalities on Colorado’s highways, and keep the public safe from failing roads and bridges,” CDOT chief engineer Pam Hutton told the committee. “It goes to our core function of maintaining critical infrastructure and keeping the public safe.”

Tony Milo, the executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, hailed FASTER as job-creating legislation during a brutal recession.

“FASTER has created about 7,000 jobs since its passage in 2009,” Milo said. “Senate Bill 95 would have eliminated many of these jobs and stopped the forward progress of needed infrastructure projects just when the economy is starting to show signs of improvement.”

Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, last year blasted FASTER because it wasn’t generating anticipated revenues or delivering infrastructure improvement quickly enough – something CDOT attributed mostly to the ongoing recession.

“[FASTER] was an absolute farce … It is a problem from a public trust standpoint,” Kopp told members of the joint and House and Senate Transportation Committee during a hearing last session. “The bill was positioned as a way to fix bridges that were in urgent need of repair and to create jobs.”

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