House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, speaks at the Colorado Capitol on May 4, 2021, about Senate Bill 260 to raise and spend millions on transportation. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Democrats formally rolled out their massive transportation fee-implementation and spending bill on Tuesday with support from top business leaders and two Republicans, saying 2021 is the year to finally tackle the holy grail that is the state’s long standing infrastructure deficit. 

“This is the year we will make it happen,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg  said Tuesday as Senate Bill 260 was introduced.

The bill would impose new fees on motorists purchasing gas and diesel fuel, while also adding additional costs to deliveries, rideshare trips and electric vehicle registrations. The fees would raise about $3.8 billion over the next decade and, paired with an infusion of the legislature’s general fund, contribute to more than $5 billion on spending.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and state Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson were the two Republicans who joined Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis, at a news conference to announce the legislation. 

“As a conservative Republican, I’m not here this afternoon because I’m a fan of everything going on with the Colorado legislature these days — far from it,” Suthers said. “But I am here to support this transportation package, because I believe Colorado must move forward to invest in its transportation infrastructure, and this is the best, most collaborative effort that I’ve seen to do so.”

Suthers says he opposed a recent proposal to raise sales taxes to pay for Colorado’s transportation needs, but that he thinks the measure introduced Tuesday strikes the best balance possible, making road users pay their fair share and lawmakers opening their purse strings.

“While I personally would prefer perhaps a greater contribution of general fund, or more money ino highway construction and less into multimodal, I’m a political realist and I understand political compromise,” he said. “And I don’t see a better package coming through the legislature or the voters anytime soon. And I strongly believe we simply cannot kick this can down the road any longer.”

A Mountain Metro Transit bus heads north on South Academy Boulevard traffic in Colorado Springs Monday, December 3, 2018. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Mike Kopp, president and CEO of Colorado Concern, and Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, were also at the news conference to voice their support.

Kopp called the measure a “breakthrough step.”

The GOP support is notable because Republicans at the legislature have generally chafed at the notion of raising fees to pay for transportation projects. Most conservatives, including the powerful group Americans for Prosperity Colorado, think voter approval should be sought before any new costs are placed on motorists and question the legality of the fee structure.

“It is unconscionable that our lawmakers could even think of moving forward with all the negative feedback they have received with only weeks left in the session to spare,” AFP Colorado State Director Jesse Mallory said in a written statement. “Coloradans, their families, and their businesses cannot possibly shoulder another financial burden after the pandemic. If our lawmakers can’t carry out the duties of their position and hold themselves accountable to voters, then we will — plain and simple.”

Mallory’s group plans to cosponsor a 2022 ballot measure with Colorado Rising State Action, another conservative group, to give voters the option to reduce the gas tax in response to the legislature’s fee plan.

Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, said during a Colorado Sun forum on transportation funding last week  that enacting fees would be “incredibly dangerous to our economy and to the well-being of people in Colorado.”

Scott said his party would instead like to see a quarter of the roughly $4 billion Colorado is receiving from the latest coronavirus relief package used for transportation. “We could solve every fiscal problem — from K-12, to higher ed, to roads and bridges — with this money if we don’t get distracted.”

Traffic on westbound Interstate 70 at Floyd Hill in August 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But Priola and Suthers rejected their fellow conservatives’ argument. Priola said he thinks Senate Bill 260 spreads the burden around fairly, and Suthers — who is also Colorado’s former attorney general — said he is confident the fees are legal and will hold up in court.

The governor said support from people like Priola and Suthers proves that the policy strikes the right balance.

“It’s rare to see people of so many different perspectives coming together around something that we need to do,” Polis said. “Most importantly, this bill is for you. It’s to finally fix our damn roads.”

Parts of the bill were first unveiled to reporters in March, but several changes have been made since then. Those alterations include: 

  • Gas and diesel fuel fees would start lower — at 2 cents per gallon starting in July 2022 — and increase 1 cent every year up to 8 cents
  • The delivery fee was initially set at 25 cents, but it has been hiked to 27 cents
  • The additional fee on top of the existing $50 charge for electric vehicle owners would be increased by a range of $55 to $159 instead of by a range of $60.19 to $153.20
  • The total general fund contribution would rise to $1.5 billion from $1.2 billion
  • The total dollars in the plan increases to $5.3 billion from $5 billion
  • $2.5 million would be set aside for Front Range rail, up from no allocation in earlier versions of the measure

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Some elements did not change between the earlier version and the one introduced on Tuesday. That includes plans to charge a new, fee of 30 cents per trip on Uber and Lyft rides starting in 2022 and eventually increasing it based on the federal Consumer Price Index. The fee would be cut in half for people carpooling in a rideshare, or riding in an electric vehicle.

Republicans and Democrats have been battling over how to fund transportation projects in Colorado for years. Voters in recent years have rejected ballot questions to raise taxes, bond and retain excess tax revenue to pay for infrastructure. 

The money generated by the new fees would go toward a myriad of projects and not just expanding existing roadways.

“This will help us reach our climate goals through electrifications and also by investing in multi-modal transportation,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and prime sponsor of the transportation-funding bill.

House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who is also a prime sponsor of the bill, said Colorado is losing its competitive edge because of its transportation-funding deficit.

“We have a transportation crisis in Colorado,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Lucy Haggard contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...