When President Trump delivers his first State of the Union Tuesday night, many in Colorado hope there’s something to be said about Colorado roads, at least indirectly about how to pay for them.
The question is whether Colorado will be giving or receiving in the system that now relies very heavily on federal fuel tax dollars and grant programs. Steering federal dollars into programs that don’t help Colorado’s interstates or transit would mean state lawmakers would have to dig even deeper into the state’s often-mention sofa cushions, when they’ve found very little there in the past.
Trump promised on the campaign trail to put $1 trillion over 10 years into the nation’s roads, tunnels, airports and harbors. Tuesday night Colorado will find out for certain what that looks like. The government is expected to offer up $200 billion in tax dollars in hopes of attracting private investors or privatization.
Former state Department of Transportation executive director Shailen Bhatt told Colorado Politics last summer that that could mean only one thing in Colorado, a place with no harbors or significant regional transit: making deals with private toll companies to monetize Colorado’s traffic. That means tolls.
On the other hand, Colorado needs a state-projected $20 billion in investment in roads, bridges and transit over the next two decades to keep traffic and people moving.
When Colorado Politics asked U.S. Sen Cory Gardner on Friday at the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver what he expects to hear from the president and leader of his party, infrastructure was a quick answer.
“I think there’ll be a lot on infrastructure,” Gardner said. “Details are starting to emerge right now, from what we’re hearing. I think there will be a lot of talk about the benefits in the tax bill and what it means for investments in this country.”
He pointed to newly announced hiring and pay raises since the Republicans and Trump pushed through tax cuts, which critics contend disproportionately favor the wealthy while adding $1.5 trillion to the nation’s debt.
“I think we can continue to build on the success of that and how all of America is lifted up by this great economic policy we’ve been able to achieve,” Gardner said.
Asked whether he could deliver new federal dollars to Colorado roads, Gardner instead pointed to his work in 2015 to save and improve the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which has since delivered big bucks to the state.
Chances to borrow money isn’t a solution if there aren’t dollars to back it up, the senator said.
“There’s a lot of financing opportunities, but sometimes that doesn’t mean actual finances behind it,” Gardner said. “So what we’ve got to do is strike the right balance between not only financing opportunities, meaning borrow more money, versus actually finding the real dollars that can go into I-70, I-25 and our rural communities across the state, so that’s what we’ve got to look for.”
In the legislature, Senate Bill 1 would preserve about $300 million a year in the state budget to repay $3.5 billion in bonds to jump-start transportation programs. The bill would ask voters in November to allow the state to borrow the money.
The Republican-led bill awaits a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, after passing the Senate Transportation Committee on a party-line vote last week.