Colorado lawmakers reach deal on transportation funding

Highway 285 outside Antero Junction on April 1. Photo by John Herrick.

This story was updated on Tuesday to indicate the Senate and the House formally agreed on a transportation spending plan. 

The House and Senate reached a long-awaited deal Tuesday night over how to pay for some of the state’s worn out roads and inadequate transportation infrastructure. 

The Republican-controlled Senate unanimously approved the compromise after Republicans in the House voted against the plan earlier in the day, calling for more taxpayer money to help pay off the state’s approximate $9 billion unfunded highway project list.

“I believe we’re getting what we wanted out of this. We wanted bonding,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley who helped to broker the deal in the final weeks of the session.

Under the proposed spending plan, work on certain highway-widening projects could begin this year with the influx of $346 million to the Colorado Department of Transportation, which maintains and builds the state’s highways. Another approximate $150 million would be split between multimodal projects and grants for local governments to spend as they wish.

In 2019, lawmakers may ask voters to approve a $2.3 billion bonding package to help pay for more projects. Democrats have been reluctant to use bonding, in part because they fear bond payments may come at the expense of other state programs like education in cash-strapped future years.

The compromise announced by leaders in the House and Senate just hours prior seemed tenuous after Republican members of the House lined up with a stack of amendments, chief among them one to boost spending to $3.5 billion and to ask voters to approve a bond sale this November, in part to save on interest and get money out the door sooner.

“Frankly, we are late to the party,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument. “Every day we delay the problem gets worse. The roads depreciate. The cost of building them goes up. The cost of financing goes through the roof.”

But Democrats agreed to the compromise in part because voters would not be asked to approve this bonding package until 2019 — a year after other measures to increase taxes to pay for transportation projects will likely be on the ballot for approval. If voters approve a separate funding plan on the ballot in November, lawmakers’ referred bonding measure would be scrapped.

Also, the $2.3 billion bonding package, which includes $1.9 billion in bond-like certificates of participation that lawmakers approved last year, is less than the $3.5 billion the Senate approved earlier this session. That’s because Democrats said they want to balance competing needs.

“This is the middle of the road where we could come together and agree on doing something,” said Rep. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster, who worked on the transportation deal. “This is gonna put us moving forward on the right path in a fiscally responsible way.”

The transportation funding gap, estimated at $25 billion over the next 25 years, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s 2016 annual report, is mostly due to the lack of money coming in from the state’s 22 cent per gallon gas tax, which helps fund transportation projects, but has not increased since 1991. The state’s booming population is also exacerbating the problem, congesting roads and causing wear and tear.

Democrats have long advocated for a tax increase to take a larger bite out of this debt to roads, but Republicans in the House have opposed this idea, especially given this year’s $1.3 billion revenue surplus.

Another win for Democrats is that they secured more money for multimodal projects like bike lanes, sidewalks and bus lines. As part of the bonding package, 15 percent would go to multimodal projects, a five percent increase over how the state currently spends its transportation money.

Ultimately, losers in the compromise are rural cities and counties who still have no assurance that they will get a chunk of the money that comes in from the bond sale.

Republicans also wanted to put limits on express toll lanes, also known as “managed lanes,” by allowing drivers to use these lanes for free during off-peak hours. This amendment failed. 

The transportation funding bill now heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk. He is expected to sign it into law.

Highway 285 outside Antero Junction. Photo by John Herrick.