COVER STORY | Heavy traffic across Colorado: Transportation dollars at stake in election
Author: Joey Bunch - October 9, 2018 - Updated: October 18, 2018
Colorado’s means of getting around are in great need of attention, partisans on every side agree. But the various solutions and competing ways of paying for transportation improvements offered by candidates and ballot measures are a different political matter entirely.
The interstates across Colorado have gotten by on a federal gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1991. And the legislature annually looks the other way on funding the repairs and expansion brought on by population and economic growth, despite the financial windfall of the state’s turbocharged economy.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has told policymakers it needs an infusion of $9 billion in the next decade and $20 billion in next 20 years.
The November ballot will offer competing visions of how to boost transportation funding. One calls for devoting $3.5 billion to roads without a tax hike; another would raise $6 billion for various improvements by charging an extra 0.62 cents on the state’s 2.9-cent sales tax.
Meanwhile, the candidates for governor are talking transportation, too. But strip away the competing rhetoric about how severe the problem is, and you’re left with their their word that they’ll do the best they can, not a pledge of dollars toward solutions.
This is as much about competing visions as it dollars: The left wants more commuter rail, bike lanes and low-emission vehicles to keep people off of the state’s overcrowded highways. The right favors wider lanes and new roads to accommodate more traffic to keep the state’s tourism and commerce rolling.
On top of that, Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights caps government spending then forces refunds, rather that letting lawmakers use the state’s credit card for taxing and spending on major long-term projects, such as highway overhauls and mass transit. TABOR forces government to be more efficient, but it often means trade-offs between infrastructure and human services.
In Colorado, transportation investment in the state has dwindled. A decade ago, transportation accounted for 10 percent of the state budget. This year, it’s about 6 percent.
Voters in November will have four opportunities to weigh in on transportation through their ballot — two ballot measures and two candidates:
- Proposition 109 (called “Fix Our Damn Roads”) would force the state legislature to borrow $3.5 billion for high-priority road and bridge projects and pay it back over 20 years from existing tax revenue.
- Proposition 110 (called “Let’s Go, Colorado”) would raise the state sales tax by 0.62 cents — a 21 percent increase — to fund various state and local transportation needs, with a required share for alternative transportation.
- Republican Walker Stapleton would use money from sports betting for transportation, though critics say it’s not nearly enough. He supports Proposition 109.
- Democrat Jared Polis wants green-powered transportation, but he puts forth no new revenue in his campaign platform plank. He says he does not “personally support or endorse” Proposition 110 to raise taxes, adding that it’s “not what I would do.”
Opponents of spending more from the state budget on transportation without raising taxes say that would endanger schools and social programs when the economy cools and the state budget tightens; loans must be repaid, while programs and benefits would be cut.
“I think you’re seeing the choice we have before us on the ballot, in the form of 109 and 110,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning economic think tank in Denver, and the former deputy chief of staff to Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“On one hand you have a responsible plan to bond for a number of road projects as well transit, and that’s Proposition 110,” he said. “And then you have a completely irresponsible ultimatum to the state legislature to take out a giant loan we can’t pay for and put up our schools and hospitals and childcare as collateral.”
Former Colorado Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams was the campaign manager for the last Republican governor, Bill Owens, who convinced voters in 1999 to overwhelmingly pass Referendum A, which borrowed nearly $1.7 billion for transportation projects with no new taxes. They were called Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes, referred to as TRANS bonds.
“Initially, Gov. Owens thought we could get TRANS passed through legislation since it did not raise taxes, but the minority Democratic state Senate leadership went to the [state] Supreme Court, which was all [appointees of Democratic governors Dick Lamm and Roy Romer], to force us to go to the ballot and they won,” Wadhams said.
That meant a statewide vote — something that most pundits said Owens, who had been elected by a narrow majority just a year earlier in 1998, could not pass.
Wadhams took a leave of absence as Owens’ press secretary in August 1999 to run the TRANS campaign.
“It was a huge overall political boon to Owens who ended up going into the 2002 re-election campaign with huge approval numbers,” Wadhams recalled. “He ended up being almost unopposed for re-election when Democrats nominated the well-meaning Rollie Heath, whom Democrats let languish with little support.”
A lack of bold plans
It’s hard to imagine either gubernatorial candidate this year building a legacy on roads. Neither candidate is thinking that big.
Until recently, Stapleton had said only that he would cut administrative costs and boost efficiency in CDOT operations to plow more dollars into roads. Given the state’s history of promises and inaction on transportation, that sounds a bit like cleaning up a train wreck with a push broom.
“We need a long-term solution to fix our state’s transportation problems,” Stapleton said. “We can no longer kick the can down the road. I will demand transparency and accountability from the Department of Transportation, find a long-term revenue stream to fund our transportation needs and prioritize building roads and bridges, something we have neglected for far too long.”
He identified only a “potential” revenue source in legalized sports gambling, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May could be authorized by the states.
But that’s hardly a fast lane. First, the legislature would have to legalize sports betting, then voters would have to approve a tax on the new business, two high hurdles, especially if Democrats retain the House or Senate.
The Polis campaign fired back that Stapleton’s gambling plan is a fool’s bet that would bring in a pittance of the billions needed, issuing a mocking press release headlined “Polis applauds Stapleton’s bold plan.”
Polis said if Colorado is lucky enough to bring in the $15 million in tax revenue Nevada earns from sports betting, it would take 600 years to raise the $9 billion needed in the next decade.
Polis’s transportation plan, however, assures even less — as in nothing. He, instead, vows to work with the legislature, which is what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper tried to do.
Colorado Politics asked his campaign to show voters the money. Instead, he said this in a statement:
“I support using new and existing sources of revenue to fund road and highway projects without sacrificing funding for health care or public schools. I oppose putting our state billions in debt without any revenue like Walker will do. Instead, I will work with Republicans, Democrats and the business community to find a funding compromise that works if Proposition 110 fails on the ballot this fall.”
Without any proposal to pay for it, Polis went on to say he would work to connect Fort Collins to Pueblo with high-speed commuter rail. A feasibility study to do that is already in the works.
“As a first step on Front Range rail, we should finish the public input process and complete a feasibility study to determine how much of the project can be funded by bonding against future ticket sales and how much, if any, would require Coloradans to vote on new revenue sources,” he said.
He said high-speed internet is part of his transportation plan, especially for rural areas, to “enable more telecommuting and help people work in the communities they live in.”
Competing ballot questions
While Proposition 109 — “Fix Our Damn Roads” — would put $3.5 billion directly into asphalt and repairs on 66 projects, Proposition 110 — “Let’s Go, Colorado” promises $6 billion to 107 state projects.
Neither completely solves the problems the state’s tremendous growth and long-neglected infrastructure spending have placed on residents, visitors and truckers.
Under the “Let’s Go” plan, CDOT would get 45 percent, cities and counties would each get 20 percent and then 15 percent would go for “multimodal projects,” such as bike lanes, mass transit and such.
While the tax is a boon for local governments — whose leaders don’t have to face the direct political fallout of requesting a tax hike — opponents say that voters have no idea how that tax money will be spent before they cast ballots next month.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers opposes the “Let’s Go” tax hike, saying local voters have more control and more return on investment by passing local taxes for local projects.
“Let’s Go, Colorado” is backed by a coalition led by the Denver Metro Chamber Chamber of Commerce, which crafted the tax hike proposal behind closed doors with public officials, as Colorado Politics reported last spring.
Proponents argue that it’s only about 6 cents on a $10 purchase (and that’s about $144 on a $24,000 used car), and the state’s wealth of tourists will help pick up the tab. They say transit and other alternative transportation are ways to look forward toward longer-range solutions.
“You cannot pave your way out of a $9 billion challenge in the state of Colorado when you have this many needs,” said Dan Gibbs, a former Democratic state legislator who is now a Summit County commissioner and a “Let’s Go” backer. “The 15 percent for multi-modal is extremely important.”
He said that’s especially true on the urban Front Range, but mountain towns and rural Eastern Plains communities need transit services, too. “Let’s Go, Colorado” offers that, but widening interstates alone doesn’t.
The plan, instead, should be called “Let’s Go Tax Colorado,” quips former Lone Tree city council member and conservative radio host Kim Monson, an advocate for the competing Proposition 109, “Fix Our Damn Roads.”
She said the sales tax would hit every Coloradan on practically everything they buy. “It really will make everyday life more expensive,” she said.
Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian-minded Independence Institute and the driving force behind “Fix Our Damn Roads.” His proposal would get 66 top-tier highway projects done with a bond issue that would take about $260 million out of the state budget.
The Trump tax cuts are expected to bring in $9oo million more for the state budget next year, largely by doing away with federal tax breaks that make some income taxable at the state level, according to budget analysts.
“We’re saying, can we use just a third of that of this core function of government that our state has not funded in over a decade?” Caldara said.
Last year, the state budget was about $28.9 billion, meaning fixing roads would cost less than 1 percent of a budget that grows every year. The budget grew nearly 8 percent last year.
“Colorado doesn’t have a revenue problem,” Monson said. “We have enough revenue. We just don’t spend it in the right places.”
Taking money from an existing budget strained by other needs, including schools and Medicaid costs, “Fix Our Damn Roads” makes no sense, Gibbs countered in a face-off with Monson and Caldara on the “Aaron Harber Show” recently.
“When we have 100,000 new people moving to Colorado each year, their proposal just doesn’t cut it,” Gibbs said.
Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads, the statewide business coalition that’s pushed for more funding for years, said both proposals offer some relief and spreads it across the state. She would like to see both pass to make a bigger leap forward on the much larger $9 billion problem.
“Passing 110’s tax increase will tackle a greater number of state highway projects, while 109 assures the state budget contributes to our transportation funding challenge,” she said. “Passing both would be the best of both worlds for transportation advocates.”
Confusion for voters
Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, says voters understand the “bumpy, congested” problems, even if the solutions politicians put forward are confounding.
Voters will have to prioritize how much they’re willing to tax themselves, and the choices are familiar.
Education funding is on the ballot again, an it’s an issue that’s tested voters’ generosity for a third time in eight years. This year Amendment 73 would raise the corporate tax rate as well as income taxes on high earners to raise $1.6 billion for schools.
History isn’t on its side. When voters were asked to pay $950 million more a year in taxes for education in 2013, Amendment 66 failed nearly 2 to 1, about the same margin of defeat as Proposition 103 in 2011 to hike taxes for $3 billion for schools over five years.
A study cited by proponents of this year’s Proposition 110 say Colorado’s unmet highway needs exact about $2,100 a year from the metro Denver commuter in the form on lost time, fuel and delivery delays.
Almost everyone travels or relies on goods and tourists delivered over the roads, Teske points out.
“That is different from, say, K-12 education where three-quarters of households don’t have a student in K-12, so they don’t experience it personally in the same way,” he said. “So, that makes it easier to make the case for more money for roads, and perhaps transit, but that depends on your focus.”
In partisan philosophy, Stapleton supports lower taxes and putting dollars directly into asphalt; Polis plays to a broader, greener constituency whose members “somewhat tie the transportation stuff to oil and gas development,” Teske said.
“The (Denver) chamber and more mainstream business folks want the sales tax increase to pay for more transportation improvement, though still not enough to get to the $9 billion that CDOT says we need, to keep our economy and quality of life strong,” he said.
“So I think the ‘how much money to roads and where it comes from’ is the primary debate.”