Last weekend, Coloradans watched with shock as part of U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder was closed due to a crack that eventually became a gaping hole in the road.
That it took place in a section of the highway built just a few years ago made it even more frustrating.
Most of the discussion ahead will focus on who will pay for the repairs. While we await a forensic analysis of the road and the still-growing hole, we already know the cost is estimated at over $20 million.
While that’s a big number, it’s only one-fourth of 1% of the estimated $9 billion in backlogged transportation projects around the state. But whether the private companies we partnered with to help pay for the project foot this particular bill or not, it’s important to remember we didn’t get here by accident.
We owe it to ourselves, to our communities, and to the state we all love so much, to finally address the elephant in the room that looms over any discussion of transportation (or education, or any other investment).
Instead of pointing fingers and laying our blame at CDOT or a private company for our transportation funding woes, let’s point the finger squarely where it belongs: TABOR.
To be sure, elected officials have tried to address the high costs of transportation projects through public-private partnerships, or P3s.
These arrangements are an important option for policymakers, but they should be just that: an option. P3s in some states have been successful, including some here, but many have failed. Despite this, they have long been seen as the most logical choice for funding transportation in Colorado.
Why? Because TABOR makes us rely on the success of expensive and uncertain statewide political campaigns to raise taxes or issue bonds to pay for transportation ourselves.
Gas taxes, transportation bonds and even how much current revenue we can spend, are all mandated by TABOR and can only be changed one day a year: Election Day.
While conventional wisdom holds that TABOR gives voters certain rights, the most well-known being a vote on tax increases, the law actually does more to restrict our ability to govern ourselves than it does to bestow any new power.
Even the right to vote on taxes was actually first gained in 1912; the year citizen initiatives were first considered by voters, and 80 years before TABOR passed.
When voters approved TABOR in 1992 (after voting variations of it down in the three previous elections) there was actually a tax increase on the same ballot.
In addition to TABOR, another milestone in transportation funding happened in the 1990s. In 1991 and 1992, lawmakers increased the gas tax, which funds most highway spending, to $0.22 per gallon.
And that is where it has stayed for the better part of three decades. Think about how much our lives, and the places we live them, have changed since the ‘90s. Unfortunately, because of TABOR and inflation, we get less bang for the buck with those gas tax dollars than we did 30 years ago.
Given the reality that the fiscally responsible doesn’t always align with the politically appetizing, it’s no wonder legislators have struggled to come up with a way to address the issue.
But make no mistake: unless we reform TABOR, the cost of the backlog will only get bigger and bigger. And it’s not just brand-new highways, bridges and public transportation systems; communities all across the state are already feeling the pinch of deferred investment.
Whether it’s a pesky pothole between Pagosa Springs and Pueblo, or a seldom-maintained shoulder between Sedgwick and Sterling, delaying road work comes at a significant cost down the line.
Coloradans have come together to address challenges before. We can do it again. But let’s not wait another 30 years, or the next highway crisis will be a lot worse than a slow-motion sink hole.
Carol Hedges is the executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting policies that lead to equity and widespread prosperity for every community in Colorado. She lives in Denver.
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