Colorado's Democrats have a straightforward method to fund some badly needed highway work: increase auto and truck registration fees, and rental-car fees. Republicans, understandably eager to be the party that avoids additional fees, are scouring the state's budget for lower-ranked funds. Unfortunately, we do not think they will find them.
Gov. Bill Ritter's plan would raise registration fees by $32 in the first year and another $9 in the second. With increased rental-car fees, the result would be about $215 million in the first year and $265 million in the second; bonding would make a lot of work possible immediately.
In addition, the state would study the possibility of replacing the state gas tax with a tax on the number of miles traveled. More fuel-efficient cars are currently cutting into the state's tax revenues, and a tax on miles traveled would better provide for construction money in the future.
Even new revenue in the mid-$200 million annually would be just a start. A state blue ribbon panel on highway improvements, established by Ritter immediately after he took office two years ago, worked hard to set needed amounts at $500 million, $1 billion and $1.5 billion. Only the two highest figures would result in appreciable road improvements. Five hundred million dollars - bonded - was deemed sufficient to make only limited improvements and would be little better than maintaining the status quo.
Legislative Republicans also are considering raising registration fees, but other than to say that the amounts would be less than what the governor has proposed, they are not yet being specific. To make up the difference - and to raise even more money for highways - they would route some of the severance tax money from water projects to highways, and look to the general fund. They are also not interested in exploring a miles-traveled tax.
Needed highway work cannot be funded out of existing revenue sources. The state's limited revenue sources are generally well directed and applied. Lean years, before the voter approved Referendum C, which allowed the state to temporarily retain revenue above a low base year, squeezed any excesses out of the budget.
Water-related projects of different sizes and shapes are needed in this arid state, and the money available in the general fund for discretionary funding is minimal. What is there is going to the state's public colleges and universities, and that is insufficient.
Colorado is overdue in making substantial highway improvements, and costs will be high. The money that is needed is not currently in the state's budget.
Registration fees can be raised without going to the voters, and they should be. The needed additional funding, from an increased gas tax or a new miles traveled tax, will have to appeal to voters. That means that specific projects will have to be listed and a timetable set.
Beyond the registration fees, however, nothing can be done until Colorado knows for certain what is contained in the coming federal economic stimulus package. Highways and bridges are frequently mentioned, and while that work is digested, some of the urgency to raise taxes may be postponed. We hope so.