Bipartisan Plan Could Solve Colorado’s Transportation Headaches

March 21, 2017 | Will Toor

The last time that Colorado raised the gas tax was in 1991. Since then, the rate has stayed at 18 cents per gallon, regardless of how much the price of gas has increased. Over that 25 years inflation has cut buying power by more than half. Not surprisingly, Colorado does not have enough money to maintain roads and bridges or to invest in public transit or walkable, bikeable communities.

Coloradans have been talking about this for years, but this year the legislature is on the verge of acting thanks to a bipartisan effort by leading lawmakers.  A major transportation bill, HB 1242,  has been introduced by Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham, Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran; Rep. Dianne Mitsch Busch, the Democratic chair of the House transportation committee, and her Republican counterpart in the senate, Randy Baumgardner.

HB 1242 would refer a measure to the voters in November to raise sales taxes by 62 cents on a $100 purchase, slightly reduce vehicle registration fees, and generate a net of approximately $630 million per year. The legislation does not actually increase the sales tax rate, it just allows the voters of Colorado to decide the question in November 2017.

If the measure passes the legislature and voters approve it, $300 million dollars a year would go to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), primarily for highway projects.  The rest of the money would be allocated to cities and counties (70 percent or about $230 million) and to a new multimodal transportation fund (30 percent or about $100 million).

Most of CDOT’s funds would be used to issue up to $3.5 billion in bonds, which would then be repaid over time from CDOT’s allocation. CDOT would be required to develop a list of bond projects before the measure goes to the ballot, so that voters will know exactly what projects will be funded. The list likely would include some big highway projects: adding express lanes on Interstate 25 between Denver and Fort Collins; adding lanes on I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs; and adding a peak period toll lane on I-70 west.

The proposal contains explicit authorization for CDOT to include multimodal capital projects in the strategic projects list. So, if local governments and advocates remain active in the process, they could get important transit capital projects (such as bus rapid transit lanes or rail lines) into the bond list.

The local share, which starts at about $230 million per year, is split 50/50 between cities and counties, and is completely flexible for transportation purposes; it may be used for roads, public transit capital projects or operating costs; bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and as match for the multimodal options fund. The idea is that the needs of communities across the state are very diverse. Community priorities vary from repairing cracked pavement, to making streets safer for kids to walk or bike to school, to building a new transit line, to van services to get elderly and disabled residents to medical care. 

The multimodal fund, which starts at $100 million per year, may be used for public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, transportation demand management, and emerging technologies such as shared electric driverless vehicles. At least 25 percent must go to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The committee that administers these funds also will be responsible for allocating dollars to address equity through transit pass or fare free transit programs for low-income Coloradans. Cities, counties and transit agencies are all eligible to apply for money from the fund, but must match it dollar for dollar so the funds go further. Cities and counties can use the flexible funds they receive for this match, providing an incentive for them to invest in multimodal improvements.

This is not the bill SWEEP would have written if we could wave a magic wand and get any bill we wanted passed. Our ideal bill would have had less highway expansion and a bigger focus on transit, on making communities walkable and bikeable, and on accelerating the transition to electric vehicles.  But the proposal lawmakers introduced is a well-crafted compromise that deserves support from those who care about energy efficiency and emissions reductions. HB 1242 builds on years of work by local governments, environmental groups, and transit, walking and biking advocates to assure that any new state transportation funding makes a significant investment in multimodal transportation, not just highways. 

This aligns well with the views of voters: polling shows that voters across the state see public transit and safe routes to walk and bike as transportation priorities, and a recent poll showed that more than 70 percent of voters are more likely to support this measure if it funds transit and walking and biking improvements. And local elected officials from all over the state recently released a letter making it clear that multimodal transportation is just as important in rural areas as in the front range.

However, despite the support of House and Senate leadership, this bill still faces a battle to get through the legislature. Conservative anti-tax organizations are attacking the tax hikes, and a number of groups have argued that the multimodal funding should be cut. Your legislators need to hear from you on why HB 1242 is important to the future of Colorado – and why keeping the proposed level of funding for public transit, and for making our communities more walkable and bikable, is key to your support.

Will Toor serves as the Director of the Transportation Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. He previously was a Boulder County Commissioner; Mayor of Boulder, Colorado; and chairman of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. He played a strong role in the development of the Boulder community transit network, EcoPass unlimited access transit pass, ClimateSmart Loan program and EnergySmart program.