Traffic jam westbound I-70 highway with snow covered mountains Colorado

File photo. Interstate travel along I-70 in Colorado can be notorious for bad traffic and slow drives. Travel along this stretch of road is often hampered by snow, ice, wind, and other hazards. Photo Credit: milehightraveler (iStock).

There is at least a $5 billion backlog in highway and bridge projects in the state — expansions, upgrades, repairs, maintenance — and that backlog isn’t getting any smaller following years of fiscal neglect. Until it is addressed, hazardous and gridlocked roadways will continue to directly and indirectly cost Colorado drivers billions of dollars annually. And Colorado will continue to decline to near rock bottom on national rankings of highway systems.

That’s why it’s time for state Republican lawmakers to step in and come to the table in the Great Transportation Debate. That’s right, the GOP — the party that holds few good cards and none of the levers of power at the Capitol in Denver these days. But it’s also the party that advocates for road projects, and its members have more influence than some of them may think. If they wield it, they have the potential to profoundly shape the debate.

For starters, they can ensure there is a debate in the first place. The 2021 legislature, soon to reconvene after a pause for COVID, must take on highway funding as a top priority. Developing a comprehensive, strategic funding plan for our transportation grid checks at least three boxes that matter a whole lot to Coloradans right now: creating jobs for the COVID recovery; breaking through gridlock on our highways — and making the drive a lot safer.

As we noted here just the other day, no one expects the legislature to dip into the state’s general fund and pick up the whole tab. There are, after all, billions of dollars of projects that are in arrears for highways and other transportation infrastructure. However, what is “very doable” — as transportation maven and longtime State Capitol lobbyist Sandra Hagen Solin observed recently at a summit convened on the subject in Denver — is about $250 million. That’s a fairly small slice of the state’s $31 billion budget, and transportation advocates believe it could leverage other funding sources — maybe new taxes or fees.

But this is where things could get bogged down. Minority Republicans will tell you ruling Democrats care more about climate change than about moving ordinary Coloradans and their cargo from Point A to Point B; that they prefer public transit and bicycles to private passenger cars and more pavement.

Given their basic tilt on transportation, Democrats resist dipping into the public till to fund highway projects. By Democrats’ lights, that money is most often better spent on K-12 schools, higher ed, health care and wide-ranging social programs. When it comes to transportation, Democrats would rather ask the public to pony up more revenue — like pending legislation for a new fee motorists would pay atop the gas tax.

The Democrats might presume Republicans, as usual, will balk at fees and, even more so, at proposing to voters a new tax for transportation. Democratic leadership may reason they have the votes to push through their version of a transportation bill without most or all of the GOP. That version probably would be laden with even more things that give Republicans heartburn, but that make hearts flutter in the green seats of the blue section across the aisle: diverting more transportation dollars to buses, bike lanes, charging stations — that sort of thing.

This is where the GOP could come into play. Are there problems with the Democrats’ funding mechanism? Rather than retreating to their cubicles to gin up talking points against “tax-and-spend Dems” for the next election — Republicans should push back at the bargaining table then and there. If a transportation package is laden with Boulder-friendly, faux-transportation fluff, push back again. Above all, if legislation leaves too little for highways — the principal mode of transportation in our state for the foreseeable future — demand more.

But the GOP can’t afford to pick up and leave over any single provision the Democrats propose. The Democrats have the votes, at least in theory, to pass a transportation package with far less of what Republicans want, one tilted even more away from highway spending. Here’s a chance for the Republicans to ensure our state gets more of the highways dollars that rank-and-file Coloradans — Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated — so badly need.

What’s the GOP’s clout — it’s bargaining chip in all this? Why should Democrats heed Republicans at all? Because on this issue, the biggest players in the largest sectors of Colorado’s economy — and even more pivotally, much of the general public — want what the Republicans want: highways that work. They are sick and tired of sitting in gridlock, whether on their way to their jobs or to the slopes in the high country.

First, though, Republicans have to show up. Compromise will be necessary as always in lawmaking, but Republicans can rest assured that if the other party speaks for the trees, the GOP speaks for the motoring public. That can go a long way even when you are in the minority.