Colorado’s cracked, crumbling and chronically congested highways are perennially blistered by the sun, freeze-dried by the cold — and in more recent years, neglected by the legislature.
Which is to say that even in the best of times — when our elected policy makers are doing their job and investing in basic infrastructure — our extreme weather still makes road maintenance a challenge. Never mind how bad it can get when lawmakers at the Capitol are distracted by an array of other spending priorities that strike them as more pressing.
Some contend the best of times or, at least, good times are about to return given a major transportation plan now pending in the 2021 General Assembly. That proposal as it is shaping up would spend about $4 billion over the next decade-plus on wide-ranging transportation endeavors, including highways.
To fund it, lawmakers would raise the price of a gallon of gas by a few pennies and then, a couple of years down the road, a few pennies more until the increase totals 8 cents per gallon. Technically, it’s a fee but in reality a back-door hike in the state’s long-stagnant gas tax. (If lawmakers acknowledged it as a tax hike from the get-go, it would require a vote of the people under our state constitution.) There would be other funding sources, too. Up front in its first year, the plan would reap a one-time, $430 million stimulus windfall. Beyond that, there would be a smorgasbord of other fees — on diesel fuel; on electric cars; on delivery services like Amazon and ride-share services like Uber.
And — get this — the plan even anticipates appropriations from the general fund, meaning the taxes Coloradans already pay the state. Those infusions would average by one account $100 million a year and by another $800 million over 11 years. Spending general-fund tax dollars on highways is something we have advocated all along because it reduces the public’s burden of new transportation funding, and it pushes transportation up toward the front of the line among budget priorities in general — where it should have been all along.
So, problem solved? Not so fast.
For one thing, transportation and highways aren’t entirely synonymous though in the way they once were. There are major appropriations that will be made out of the pending transportation plan to the likes of everything from buses to bike lanes to electric-car charging stations. As currently envisioned, in fact, highways would get about $2.5 billion out of the roughly $4 billion package.
Another caveat before celebrating the imminent transportation plan is that, given at least a $5 billion backlog in highway, road and bridge repairs, upgrades and other projects statewide, it’s not like gridlock will go away anytime soon.
An even more significant caveat also is in order here. Even if the motoring public can accept the de facto tax hikes masquerading as fees that are built into this vision for near-term transportation funding, there’s no guarantee as to how much of current revenue the legislature will pony up. The same backers of the current proposal have balked repeatedly over the past few months at suggestions from the business community and other transportation advocates that there should be a sustainable, regular appropriation for highways built into the state budget.
Owing to a sustained shift in the prevailing political winds — with ever-lukewarm-to-highways Democrats in control of both legislative chambers — support at the Capitol for dipping into general fund revenue is likely to wax and wane from year to year.
Enter Jon Caldara and his Denver-based Independence Institute — those reliable antagonists of tax and fee hikes (whether through the back door or up front). They have filed a ballot initiative that aims to resurrect an old law dedicating a percentage of sales and use taxes to transportation. Good for them. State Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, is a co-proponent with Caldara in filing for the initiative.
Once known around the Capitol as “SB 1,” the law was repealed by a Democrat-controlled Colorado General Assembly a decade ago. That crop of lawmakers, much like the current one, felt it had more important things to attend to when opening up the taxpayers’ checkbook.
SB 1’s restoration would set lawmakers straight in realigning priorities. It probably would be the best, next step in funding our state’s transportation needs. Legislative spending priorities are bound to change from year to year, and that’s without regard to which party is in control. But lawmakers’ commitment to keeping up our state’s infrastructure should never waver.