Year after year, Colorado lawmakers in both parties make finding money for road and transit projects a top priority only to see a big deal get downsized — or more often, collapse entirely.
“We are Charlie Brown and we are hoping we are going to get that football,” said state Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat. “We will see if we do or not, but we are not going to stop because the system we have right now is not sustainable and the problem gets harder to fix every year we don’t fix it.”
The optimism for a boost to the state’s transportation funding has returned ahead of the 2021 legislative session, and Gray said “it has more momentum now than we have seen in my three years of working on this.”
The proposal currently on the table would add a fee to the purchase of a gallon of gas. The levy would come on top of the state’s gas tax, which is 22 cents per gallon.
In addition, lawmakers also want to put an infusion of existing tax dollars in the state’s discretionary spending account, known as the general fund, toward transportation projects.
A third component that remains part of the negotiations is a road-usage charge in which drivers pay a fee based on the number of miles driven in lieu of a fuel tax, Gray said.
The cost of the gas tax fee or road-usage fee for drivers have not been decided, advocates said. Even though no legislation is drafted for the session’s start on Jan. 13, Gray said he’s confident it will materialize and make progress.
Likewise, it remains uncertain how much money for roads and transit the legislation would generate with Gray calling it “as much a political question as an infrastructure question.”
“It’s obviously delicate,” Gray said. “There’s a lot of ways it could go wrong but there’s also a lot of momentum.”
One of the changes pushing a potential deal forward is support from Gov. Jared Polis to get a solution done this year, advocates said. The Democrat made it a priority to get more electric and higher fuel-mileage vehicles on the road, which demands a new source of funding for roads given that it would erode gax tax revenues.
His administration’s 10-year strategic transportation plan lists projects costing about $3.5 billion. So far, the initial nearly $2 billion is covered after lawmakers made more money available in recent years and authorized $500 million in bonds to generate new dollars.
A spokesman for Polis did not respond to questions about whether he supports the proposal but said the governor wants to put one-time money to transportation projects.
The legislative advocates behind the proposal have held more than three dozen private meetings with companies and interest groups to find common ground.
The main target is the gas tax, but it’s a politically fraught question.
In 2020, the transportation talks didn’t progress after the pandemic hit. But the political pressure was significant. The conservative political nonprofit Americans for Prosperity launched an advocacy campaign against a gas tax hike at the start of the legislative session.
The gas tax has remained flat since 1992, leading to static revenues for road building and maintenance as fuel economy in vehicles has improved. But interest in putting a tax hike question on the ballot has remained low because other efforts to increase tax revenue to boost transportation and education have failed in recent years.
The proposal to implement a fee would allow lawmakers to bypass the requirement for voter approval under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights because it doesn’t count as a tax hike, advocates said.
The road-use fee would only apply to certain businesses that currently track driving patterns, such as ride-sharing services, and food- and package-delivery companies. A 2016 study of a pilot program in Colorado found other drivers were deeply concerned about personal privacy for broader implementation.
State Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the House transportation committee, said he wants to make sure transportation gets priority status this year, even if he’s unsure of how to find more money. He said just because the pandemic is reducing traffic jams doesn’t mean the problem disappeared.
“In this day and age, it might be one of the things the two parties can agree on because we are all beating our cars to death in these potholes and being stuck in line,” he said in a recent interview while driving. “I don’t know how we beat the drum louder, that’s one of my problems. … We all say we need to fix transportation but somewhere along the line we lose our focus.”
Mike Kopp, the president and CEO of Colorado Concern, an influential organization of business leaders, said the negotiations are ripe this year for a bipartisan agreement.
“I think that the legislators are definitely feeling the heat from their constituents,” he said. “They are reading correctly that their constituents want a resolution to this.”