The Colorado Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday afternoon served up the official opening volley of another contentious fight over how to pay for transportation to keep up with Colorado’s growth.
The first bill Senate Republicans filed this session would ask voters next November to borrow $3.5 billion and repay it with about $300 million a year from the state budget for the next 20 years. The bonds would jumpstart major projects such as widening Interstate 25 north of Monument and Denver, as well as find solutions to the constant snarls on I-70 through the mountains.
Democrats contend that while Colorado can afford to invest in roads while the economy is booming, when money gets tight obligating that much every year from the budget would mean cuts to schools, social programs and a host of state agencies that also are struggling to keep up with growth.
Senate Bill 1 passed, 3-2, on a party-line vote after a three-hour hearing Tuesday afternoon. The bill goes next to the Senate Finance Committee then, assuming it passes, to the floor, where Republicans have a one-state majority. In the House, Democrats have a nine-seat edge.
Sen. Randy Baumgardner, chairman of Transportation Committee and a sponsor of the bill, said he wasn’t offering the perfect solution, but the it’s better than the state has done in the past.
“You all know we’ve been down here the past four year and we’ve done nothing – nothing,” he told the committee. “And we fall farther behind all the time.”
Sen. Nancy Todd voted against the bill and she’s holding out for a bipartisan “Colorado solution.”
She said bonding is being inaccurately being pitched as a cost-free solution, when it’s really debt that strikes a barely one-third of the needs. She characterized Senate Bill 1 as a patchwork solution and thought legislators should find a permanent new funding source to allow the state to plan for its growth.
“I’m tired of Band-Aids,” said the Democrat from Aurora. “I’m ready for full surgery.”
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said he would like a Colorado solution, too. And he pointed to $1.7 billion in bonds in 1999 for 25 T-REX projects, mostly in the Denver area.
“If it’s good enough for Denver, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of the state,” he said.
The bill refers a measure to the November ballot to ask voters to borrow $3.5 billion to be paid back – up to $5 billion – over 20 years. The repayment would come from 10 percent of the state sales tax revenue.
State agencies are fretting they’ll face cuts down the road, if a tight budget first has to cover bond payments. The departments of education, human services and higher education all spoke against the bill.
Christina Rosendahl, the chief lobbyist for the Department of Corrections, said the agency is opposed to the bill because it’s worried about future budget cuts.
“We appreciate the discussion and truly believe funding transportation is both needed and laudable, and is something that’s important to all of us in Colorado,” she said. “That being said, this bill does take significant dollars out of the budget and really puts pressure on other agencies that rely on General Fund dollars.”
Business interests told the committee that traffic woes are choking the economic lifeblood from the state. At the same time, tax increases and partisan solutions that aren’t politically
“Overreach on these solutions don’t really help us,” said David May, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce and a leader of the Fix North I-25 Business Alliance.
Mizraim Cordero, vice president of government affairs for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports Senate Bill 1 as a starting point to a bipartisan solution for transportation that could get to the governor’s desk.
He said Coloradans are “fed up with the increasing congestion and deteriorating condition of their roads.”
Rachel Beck, vice president of government affairs of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC told the committee the legislation needs four components:
A significant and ongoing contribution from the budgetNew revenue tied to transportation services (meaning not a sales tax).A focus on statewide corridors of regional significance.It has to politically viable, “because we might get only one shot at this.”“This is a good start, but there are still a number of components that need to come together to get to a solution that really does address these needs on a long-term basis,” Beck said.
Sandra Hagen Solin spoke for business interests along the state’s major corridors when she testified on behalf of Fix Colorado Roads, the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, the Northern Colorado Economic Alliance and the Vail Valley Partnership.
“She said that after a prior Senate Bill 1 passed in 1997, it put $2.2 billion from the budget until it was repealed 12 years later, In the ensuing decade the General Fund budget has provided only $357 million.
“The restoration of General Fund dollars that’s afforded in Senate Bill 1 is an incredibly important step to addressing our challenges,” she said. “We can certainly have a host of competing conversations around who’s hurting worse in this state with respect to our budgets. The reality is there’s growth in this budget to allow us to address many of the concerns that are facing us.
“Transportation has been waiting for a long time.”
May said the state can’t continue to wait on a political solution to funding. Every year the costs rise with the population, and every year the traffic gets worse.
“Every year we don’t out a solution on the table we are hurting the citizens of the this state,” he said.
Tony Milo, the executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, whose members work on most of the public works infrastructure projects in the state, said money from the state budget, alone, won’t solve the problem long-term, and when times get tough there’s no assurances transportation would face indirect cuts. The state has to find a sustainable source of funding for transportation, not the boom and bust of borrowing and spending.
“CDOT has documented a need of $1 billion a year,” he told the committee. “Our cities and counties across the state also have shortfalls of hundreds of millions of dollars to relieve gridlock on city streets, improve safety on our rural roads and provide mobility on a local and regional basis.
“SB 1 as written is a good start to helping CDOT address a limited number of high-priority projects, but does not address continuing maintenance of the existing system nor does it provide any additional funding to our cities and counties who collectively are in just as much of a funding crisis as CDOT.”
Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, shared that concern that the deal only helped state projects, not local ones, as well. Last year’s failed House Bill 1242 would have steered some of the $3.5 billion to local governments.
Cooke pointed out that local governments already get transportation money from the state, which won’t change if Senate Bill 1 passes and voters approve the bonds.
She said the chamber is in a “monitoring” position on the bill.
“But make no mistake we do consider transportation our highest priority as an organization this year,” she told the committee. “We applaud the fact we see a bill early in the session, and we are also very excited about the potential for being able to bond on some existing revenue rather than asking for a tax increase.”
Mike Salisbury, a transportation expert for the Colorado-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, agreed local governments should get money and expanding broader forms of transportation is critical.
Local roads, state highways, bike paths and transit services Coloradans are relying on have become increasing inadequate,” he said.
R.J, Hicks, representing the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, spoke of the long struggle to find a transportation fix that lasts.
“This bill is just a continuing saga we’ve been in in the General Assembly for a number of years, stretching well over a decade,” the veteran lobbyist said.
Like others grateful for any major investment in transportation, he said a permanent solution is better than a good-times handout.
“When the economy tanks are we going to see the casualty being the funding of our roads again?” he asked the committee.