May: Path forward exists for transportation funding

A solution to Colorado’s transportation problem is available, if the partisans at the Capitol can compromise enough to seize the opportunity.

Colorado’s congestion is a growing concern and matched by escalating frustration of Coloradans. The root of the issue is a lack of commitment in recent years by state leaders to fund the transportation system. Consequently, there is an annual shortfall of $1 billion for transportation and a backlog of about $9 billion in statewide transportation needs.

Recent polling indicates that voters have had enough of the situation and expect action.

State legislative leaders now seem to understand this at a certain level. Early in the 2017 legislative session Senate President Kevin Grantham and House Speaker Chrisanta Duran cosponsored a transportation bill, House Bill 17-1242.

The bill has some laudable aspects. First, it is bipartisan and has the backing of top legislative leaders. Second, it made transportation bonding a key component. Third, it proposed a new funding source, namely a sales tax dedicated to transportation. Fourth, it made an attempt to share new revenue between major state projects, state-qualified local transportation projects and transit.

As introduced, however, it didn’t stand much chance of passing. The bill is Denver-centric and would spend too much of the revenue on things other than the state transportation system. Additionally, it was all about new revenue and didn’t address a key complaint that state leaders have left transportation out of the existing state budget. This is a legitimate point since state revenues have grown by $4 billion since 2009 with very little of it being spent on transportation.

Some of these issues and others have been addressed as the bill has moved through the various legislative committees. It will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee this week. Whether it’s HB 1242 or another bill, here are the key elements that could get it through a divided Legislature and might earn voter support at the ballot this fall:

Maintain a provision for bonding. Specifically, approve transportation bonding up to $3.5 billion with up to $5.5 billion for bond payments. Maximize the benefit of those bonds by restricting their use only for state projects.

Reduce the proposed sales tax increase rate from 0.5 percent — it was originally even higher at 0.62 percent — to something between 0.3 percent and 0.4 percent. Democrats will want more, Republicans will want less, or none at all. And voters are willing to pay something and want the problem addressed. That sounds like the basis for a compromise.

Maintain the requirement for state funding from the general fund for transportation by keeping an old funding mechanism called SB 228 in place.

Put the state’s highway system first by changing the allocations in HB 1242 to make sure a majority of the revenue goes to the state system with the rest split between a local government share-back and transit.

With only 2 ½ weeks left in the legislative session, this will be a real test of leadership for Grantham and Duran. A path does exist to pass and refer a transportation measure to voters, if they really want to address Colorado’s transportation needs. It will take every bit of their patience and skills and help from the governor’s office, but it can be done.

Originally published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan on April 21, 2017