Senate transportation proposal scores win, but rough road remains ahead

Denver Traffic. Photo by Jared Tarbell via Flicker Creative Commons.

Senate Republicans have work to do if they hope to move their latest proposal to fund big-ticket projects like the widening of Interstate 25 through the Democratic-controlled House.

Their bill to raise about $3.5 billion through the sale of bonds for transportation projects passed the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday by a 3-2 vote along party lines. But lobbyists, advocates and state officials standing in the packed committee room raised concerns that the bonds could be paid off over decades at the expense of other state programs. 

“It may come at the expense of students and schools that are already struggling,” said Brian Tanner, a lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association, who testified against the bill.

But Committee Chair Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, pressed forward despite the lack of bipartisan support. 

“This is a really good first step in moving transportation forward,” Baumgardner told The Colorado Independent

Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, after the vote on Tuesday.

Population growth is straining the state’s transportation infrastructure, forcing drivers to swerve potholes and commuters to sit in traffic. On Saturday, skiers heading to the mountains on Interstate 70 sat in congestion for an extra 20 minutes between Floyd Hill and the exit for 232 for Winter Park. Crash delays caused by a winter storm made travel the next day even slower.

Widening the bottleneck around Floyd Hill will cost between $500 million to $1 billion, former Colorado Department of Transportation executive director Shailen Bhatt told The Colorado Independent last year. The state’s gas tax, which helps fund transportation projects, has not increased since 1991, and now the Department of Transportation estimates a 10-year funding backlog of about $9 billion, and about $25 billion funding gap over the next 25 years, according to its 2016 annual reportA bipartisan effort to raise the sales tax last session died in the Senate.

Senate Bill 1 would divert 10 percent of the state’s sales and use tax revenue to the state highway fund to pay the debt service on the bonds, which will be about $335 million for the next fiscal year. This concerns House Democrats who view it as a long-term debt.

“I worry about policy that mortgages our future and that in future years could have detrimental impacts on education funding,” House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, told reporters on Monday.  

Duran said the state needs a ballot initiative to raise new money to fund transportation projects. But she did not provide specifics and said she wants to wait until the March revenue forecasts to identify an amount to raise.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville likes to say Democrats are holding residents’ commutes hostage to get a tax increase on the ballot. Republicans, including Senate President Kevin Grantham who voted for a sales tax increase last year to fund roads, say this year is different with December revenue forecasts predicting at least $748 million in surplus this year, according to the Legislative Council.

“We’re in a totally different situation this year,” Grantham said. “Last year we were struggling to try to find where to get those dollars.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper is requesting $148.2 million for transportation projects, according to a Jan. 2 budget request amendment. During his State of the State address, he also showed support for a ballot initiative, but not the kind Senate Republicans have proposed to commit about $300 million a year from the general fund. 

“It’s a bridge too far,” Hickenlooper told reporters during a press conference where he announced a state plan for electric vehicles. “So we’re looking at what scale could we bond at responsibly. What would that look like? Probably not enough to do a lot of the projects.”

The Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services testified against the bill Tuesday, saying it would create financial uncertainty for their budgets.

“This bill does take pretty significant dollars out of the budget and it puts pressure on other agencies that really do rely on general fund dollars,” said Christina Rosendahl, a legislative liaison for the Department of Corrections.

Others wanted to see the bill spend more money on projects that help people move by bus, trail, bike and foot. 

“We also need a significant investment in transit and pedestrian infrastructure,” said Sophia Guerrero-Murphy, energy and transportation advocate for Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental advocacy group.

House Majority Leader KC Becker told The Colorado Independent that transportation includes more than just roads and bridges. Becker said her caucus is going to keep fighting for multimodal transportation such as buses and bike lanes.

“People rely on it for getting up to Eldora to go skiing, getting up to the mountains to go skiing, getting into Denver for work,” Becker said.

Senate Bill 1 does allocate 10 percent of the transportation revenue to transit projects or improvements. 

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is preparing a ballot initiative but is waiting to see what proposals lawmakers come up with first, according to Mizraim Corder, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs. He said the chamber is neutral on Senate Bill 1 but would like to see more support for multimodal projects.  

Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, voted against the bill. She said she wants a comprehensive proposal that voters know has been vetted by both parties.

“I think it’s one way. Last year was another way. Maybe there is something in between,” Todd said.

The bill will be considered next by the Finance Committee.

Title photo: Denver traffic on I-25. Photo by Jared Tarbell via Flicker Creative Commons.  


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