On one hand you could say we didn’t learn much from the speeches made by legislative leaders and the governor last week. They all named transportation as a must-make compromise this session.
The state faces $9 billion in transportation needs and a proposal on the table to borrow $3.5 billion for the top priorities, including widening Interstate 25 north of Monument and north of Thornton, as well as find solutions on the I-70 mountain corridor.
But it’s hard to see how we get there from the positions we heard outlined in speeches Wednesday and Thursday. Republicans made it clear they want some of the money — and in the case of House Republican leader Patrick Neville, all the money — to come from the state’s general fund. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Senate Democratic leader Lucia Guzman hold out hopes of reclassifying the state’s Hospital Provider Fee. That would get it out from under a constitutional spending cap to free up millions at the expense of taxpayers, who are due a refund under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
The general fund is the state bank account that pays for K-12 schools and higher education, courts and prisons, Medicaid, and social services.
The idea that none of the billions needed for transportation comes out of the state budget is a non-starter for Republicans, but Democrats say they won’t rob already-underfunded schools to pay for asphalt.
Here’s what each of the five leaders said about funding transportation. I’ve highlighted their preferred solutions, but I include the whole text of their remarks on transportation because we might need to reference them later.
And thank you, Patrick Neville, for being concise.
Senate President Kevin Grantham:
“Perhaps one of the most ominous issues facing us today that resonates with both sides of the aisle and to our constituents in all 35 Senate districts is the problem of the deteriorating condition of our transportation infrastructure and funding to significantly address the problem. The problem is recognized by all. The need to address it is agreed to by all. How to address it remains a topic of discussion and debate. But that discussion is happening and continues to happen.
“Our current road and highway infrastructure needs exceed $9 billion including $3.5 billion in shovel ready projects on the priority list awaiting funding. With such a significant number of projects waiting for us to act and with such a steep initial price tag to get them started, some creative solutions may be called for, but solutions that respect the priorities on both sides of the aisle and most importantly, the wishes and will of the Colorado taxpayer and voter.
“Getting most of these projects underway in a timely manner will require the ability to leverage our revenue streams through revenue anticipation notes, or bonds. These will require consistent future revenue streams that can be committed to the repayment of the bonds. With the help of our Transportation Committee chair, Sen. Baumgardner, we are dedicated to working with the leadership and members of the House of Representatives to arrive at solutions that we can present to the voters of Colorado, solutions that will hold faith with the taxpayers of Colorado and their desire for accountability for their dollars.
“We must demonstrate to them that, if we are going to ask them for permission to go into debt to fund these projects, and if we are going to ask them for more out of their own pockets to fund these bond payments, then we must also demonstrate the commitment to re-prioritize the dollars they’ve already entrusted to us by dedicating existing general fund money if this is truly a priority. There are yet many details to work out but the potential is great this session for a truly bi-partisan solution to our roads and highway infrastructure funding.”
House Speaker Crisanta Duran:
“Let’s reach bipartisan consensus on a statewide transportation plan — a plan that overhauls our fast-decaying infrastructure and meets the needs of our rapidly growing state. We need a plan that focuses not just on moving cars down the road, but on moving people. We need to accommodate our state’s increasing productivity and population, which is growing by 250 people per day.”
“Anyone who’s been on I-25 at rush hour, anywhere from Fort Collins to Pueblo, knows the need is real. With a statewide transportation plan that infuses new resources into our state’s most critical needs, we put more Coloradans to work. We improve our state’s quality of life. And we increase the productivity of our Colorado businesses. Almost half of our bridges need preventive maintenance. Almost eighty percent of our highways will need repairs or major reconstruction in the next ten years. We all know that potholes and rough roads are causing damage to our tires and cars.
“Additional funding will allow us to improve our roads and bridges, to maintain our existing infrastructure and avoid costly repairs, and to create more transportation options for more people, including bus and rail service and flexible transportation options for elderly Coloradans and those with disabilities.
“I am pleased to say members of all four caucuses are engaged in promising discussions to create a bipartisan proposal to send to Colorado voters that is comprehensive, that will provide new resources, and that will benefit our entire state – from the rural eastern plains and Western Slope to our busy urban corridor.
“Let’s send the voters a plan with dedicated transportation projects that are transparent and accountable to taxpayers and won’t take money from our schools. Let’s make sure that promises made are promises kept. While transportation will be a big topic this year, there’s another we cannot lose focus on. Education remains one of our state’s greatest challenges.”
Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman:
“We can no longer neglect the funds we need to fix our crumbling infrastructure, nor fail to address the funding needed to repair and build roads and bridges. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association found that 421 of Colorado’s bridges to be structurally deficient, meaning key elements of the structures are considered to be in poor or in worse condition than poor. That’s over 500 families drive on that are falling apart. As our population has grown over these last several years we have seen significant traffic congestion, and it’s getting worse.
“And our roads fall into further disrepair with more and more potholes. The people of Colorado should be able to drive their kids to school and drive to work on safe and reliable roads and bridges. Dollars for transportation means putting people back to work in good-paying jobs and making travel safer.
“But we cannot accomplish these feats through proposals that would cut deeply into our already underfunded classrooms and vital services Coloradans depend upon. Therefore, I urge us to consider the option of moving the Hospital Provider Fee into an enterprise fund. As you all know, last year every major newspaper, every editorial board, every business chambers of commerce and every rural group in Colorado came out publicly in support of moving the Hospital Provider Fee into an enterprise fund.
“This solution was at our fingertips last year, but we were not able to get it done. Moving the Hospital Provider Fee into an enterprise in fact honors the voters’ intent on TABOR and would not alter the TABOR cap or raise taxes. It simply would isolate the fee and move it from the General Fund, where it was improperly comingled in the first place. I look forward to working with my colleagues here in the Senate. I have a bill, as well, to do this, to move the Hospital Provider Fee. But it needs to be worked on together. We are all open to building a bill that would invite the kind of changes, the king of opportunities where we could come together and do something about this.”
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville:
“We talk a lot about priorities in this building, but the truth is, if we have lots of top priorities we actually have none. Once again, Republicans’ top priority will be transportation. No other issue in front of us impacts commerce, education, public safety and revenue more than transportation. Parents drive their kids to school on our roads, businesses depend on employees and customers travelling to their facilities, oil, gas and agricultural companies depend on roads to transport their product, and the state depends on tourism. There are countless more examples of why transportation must be our top priority, yet there are elected officials in this building that say funding transportation is only something we can do when we have extra money.
“Members, if we treat transportation funding as an afterthought our roads will get worse. This legislature controls the General Fund and prioritizing that revenue for transportation is something we can control without asking taxpayers for more money and depending on an election. We have discussed bonding for new transportation projects in the past and members on both sides of the aisle have supported that proposal. This year let’s finally give transportation the support it needs and prioritize general fund revenue to service a TRANS bond bill.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper:
“We need a comprehensive focus on infrastructure that supports not just transportation, but also broadband, education, healthcare, and our environment. These are not luxuries. Infrastructure investments lead to jobs. And quality of life starts with a good job. If we want to be the best, we need to lead in Colorado.
“One way to get started is right before us. Talking about the Hospital Provider Fee on the second floor of the Capitol is about as popular as the Oakland Raiders. But it’s a sensible way to solve some of our problems, though it won’t solve all of them. Let’s see if we can take a fresh look at the hospital provider fee itself, and see if it can be modified as a vehicle to control costs, to build more transparency and accountability and better serve rural clinics and hospitals.
“We can free up the money we already have, from existing revenue, to begin building the infrastructure we need to support our growth. Over the next decade, Colorado has $9 billion dollars of unmet transportation needs, and that need will only grow. Voters are tired of us kicking the can down the road, because they know it’s going to land in a pothole.
“In our neighboring state of Utah, infrastructure investment is a priority. Utah has about half as many people as Colorado but invests four times what we do to expand their road capacity every year. It’s economics 101: smart investments in infrastructure create jobs and strengthen the economy.
“Two years ago, on the west steps of the Capitol, we said it was time for a continuous third lane on I-25 from Wyoming to New Mexico. This past summer, working with local officials, we secured $15 million in federal funds to help build a new express lane from Fort Collins to Loveland.
“And just last week, CDOT leveraged funding to start the planning process to add a third lane from Castle Rock to Monument. This means that the required planning will be completed in under three years. These are good first steps, but the cost of construction to bring I-25 into the modern world is still over $2 billion. That’s more than CDOT’s total annual budget, which is almost entirely dedicated to maintenance.
“We’re already squeezing every penny out of our transportation revenue but efficiencies can only get us so far. With the gas tax unchanged since 1992, more fuel efficient cars and normal inflation: it’s basic math. It’s a funding problem.
“We’ve had this debate for too long. If talk could fill potholes we’d have the best roads in the country. But the General Fund cannot adequately support the demands of core government services and capacity improvements in transportation. There are some who believe we can pay for our infrastructure needs through cuts alone. But that can only happen if we demand major sacrifices from Coloradans. If that’s what you want, introduce that bill. Make that case. Tell us who loses healthcare or what schools have to close to add a mile of highway.
“Coloradans share our desire to make these investments. They know that our future economy demands a modern infrastructure. Let’s examine all our options. Whether it’s new revenue, simplifying or replacing old tax streams or a combination of both. We can find a solution that clearly spells out to Coloradans exactly what they’re getting and how the money will be spent. And how that funding can benefit rural and urban communities, support local needs and statewide projects, and balance transit options with highway expansions.”