A short amendment to a bill adjusting a grant program that supports free bus and train rides is raising hackles among rural Colorado leaders who say it could change how transportation projects are funded.
The amendment to House Bill 1101, approved by the Colorado Senate last month, would reverse a process that began in 1992 in Colorado, with rural and urban communities each at the table discussing how to spend transportation dollars.
“This turns over a process that has worked well for 30 years with one fell swoop, with no public hearings, no public testimony in an overnight change,” said former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a six-year Routt County commissioner who served as chair of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Northwest Transportation Planning Region. “This will hurt the economy of the Western Slope. It will disenfranchise rural areas across the state. This should not be an amendment. It’s a major overhaul to how we have done things in Colorado for decades.”
How transportation funding works
Transportation funding in the U.S. is a blurry stew of acronyms that makes it challenging to follow the flow of federal funding dollars. We’re going to try anyway.
The federal system got an overhaul with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act of 1991. That landmark legislation replaced a federal funding system focused on urban roads and removed population density as the primary consideration for federal grants. The federal legislation directed states to form regional transportation groups to help raise rural voices in funding discussions.
Rural communities have long argued that transportation funding from gas taxes in Colorado should be distributed based on lane miles — the total distance of all roads — or even vehicle miles traveled, which is the total distance traveled on all roads.
While only about 22% of the state’s population lives in rural areas, 78% of the state’s highways are there and 39% of the miles traveled on Colorado roads are in rural areas. CDOT’s 10-year strategic plan, released in 2019, showed Colorado ranked 47th in the country for the condition of rural roads. The agency plans to spend $800 million to repair 2,600 miles of rural pavement between 2020 and 2030.
CDOT funding plans start with 15 Transportation Planning Regions guided by commissions made up of locally elected leaders. They call those TPRs. Those TPR commission members make recommendations to the State Transportation Advisory Committee, or STAC.
The STAC is made up of 10 representatives from the TPRs, plus five Front Range Metro Planning Organizations and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. The STAC makes recommendations to the 11-member State Transportation Commission, which is the final arbiter of funding.
How the amendment could change that
The amendment to House Bill 1011 says that the transportation commission “shall update its rules governing the statewide transportation process and transportation planning regions to adjust the boundaries of the transportation planning regions … in a manner that ensures that the state’s population is proportionally and equitably represented on the transportation advisory committee.”
And the STAC shall consider highway corridors, commuting patterns, transit-oriented development and “levels of air pollutants” when adjusting the boundaries of the TPRs.
To rural communities in Colorado, the amendment reads like less-populated areas with less pollution will have less of a voice when it comes to accessing federal highway funding.
The amendment was approved by the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee on Feb. 27.
Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced the amendment briefly in the hearing, saying the changes to the geographic make-up of TPRs were “at the request of CDOT.” The bill and amendments passed the committee on a 5-0 vote.
The bill then cleared the Senate on March 3 and was sent back for the House to approve the change.
The House has delayed consideration of the Senate amendments to the bill twice this week.
“This amendment is to reflect the goals of the state of Colorado around transportation and transit and climate,” Winter told The Colorado Sun on Tuesday. “It absolutely does not hurt rural Colorado.”
Winter said the amendment is aimed at making sure the state’s transportation planning regions are drawn “in a way that actually represents population and the goals that we’ve set forward in transit legislation.”
When asked if local governments were consulted on the amendment, Winter said there were conversations and that the Colorado Department of Transportation “has been discussing this for awhile.”
Opposition to the change
State Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, voted against the bill on Friday, joining 10 Republican senators. He’d heard from TPR members in rural communities who were concerned about redrawing the regions’ boundaries based on population counts, he said.
“The idea of redrawing TPRs is not new and there could be some benefit for smaller communities, but we need to do it as separate bill and have a full stakeholder process to make sure it’s not just based on population,” said Roberts, whose district includes all or portions of Clear Creek, Eagle, Garfield, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties. “While not everybody lives in our area, they certainly come and visit and they have impacts to our roads and environments.”
“This will completely combine all the TPRs into a large rural populace and give us zero voice when it comes to funding for our roads,” said Heather Sloop, a Steamboat Springs councilmember who serves on the STAC as chair of the five-county Northwest Travel Planning Region. The region contains 1.1% of the state’s population and 7.2% of the state’s lane miles.
The STAC met last week with CDOT officials. There was no mention of an amendment that could reorganize the transportation advisory committee, Sloop said.
“They deliberately did not say a thing. I am accusing CDOT of not giving STAC information. Please quote me,” Sloop said. “This smells so dirty and undercutting and gross and unethical.”
Margaret Bowes, director of the 28-member I-70 Coalition, said her group was “surprised by the amendment.”
“We are really trying to get a better understanding of what the changes might mean for I-70 Coalition members,” said Bowes, whose group of 20 rural municipalities, three rural counties, four ski resorts and one mining company, works to improve flow on the busy central mountain corridor of Interstate 70. “Ultimately we want to ensure that any changes to the boundaries of the TPRs do not diminish rural representation at the state level on boards like the STAC and the transportation commission.”
Club 20, a coalition of businesses, tribes and local governments in Colorado’s 22 western counties that formed in 1953 in response to rural transportation funding challenges, sent out an email blast Tuesday afternoon urging members to reach out to legislators to block a “devastating transportation representation bill” that is “being fast tracked” through the statehouse.
“This bill would have devastating impacts to rural Colorado’s representation and, if passed, would silence the voices of western Colorado and rural communities,” the Club 20 email reads.
They deliberately did not say a thing. I am accusing CDOT of not giving STAC information. Please quote me. This smells so dirty and undercutting and gross and unethical.
— Heather Sloop, Steamboat Springs council member and member of the State Transportation Advisory Committee
Vince Rogalski has been chairman of the STAC for 19 years, representing the six-county Gunnison Valley TPR, which has about 1.8% of the state’s population and 6.5% of its roads. He just heard about the amendment to House Bill 1101 on Monday night. He fired off a note to House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, telling her the changes to what he called an “innocuous bill” are “appalling.”
Rogalski said the amendment would shrink rural TPRs and expand metro representation on STAC and “that does not serve the people of this state.”
“They have made this bill into something that changes everything,” he said. “It’s a rearranging that will mess up everything.”
Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue sees her community buried in cars every winter weekend. There’s no way her county budget could address the needed infrastructure improvements required to accommodate the millions of skiers rolling into the county’s four major ski areas via I-70 every season.
The current funding process that funnels through the county’s Intermountain TPR, which includes Eagle, Garfield, Lake and Pitkin counties, “doesn’t get us to a place where we can address what is happening in our county,” she said. The Intermountain TPR accounts for 3.1% of the state’s population with 6.7% of the roads in Colorado and 6.8% of the total miles driven.
“I appreciate the concerns about the process,” she said, noting the last-minute amendment to a bill that addresses funding for free bus rides during high ozone periods. “But it’s time to talk about the overall factors that go into equitable funding of transportation projects across the state. We are long overdue for some changes in this transportation funding space and it’s time to have this conversation.”
CDOT argues the amendment “helps rural Colorado”
Matthew Inzeo, communications director at CDOT, said it is “fundamentally inaccurate that the purpose of this amendment is to take funding away from rural communities.” The amendment, he said, “helps rural Colorado” by requiring the transportation commission “to revisit the balance amongst rural regions.”
The Intermountain TPR, for example, has 169,000 residents in Eagle, Garfield, Lake, Pitkin and Summit counties, while the South Central TPR has fewer than 21,000 residents in Huerfano and Las Animas counties. Boundaries have not been revisited for decades, Inzeo said in an email.
“This amendment would start a public process to take a fresh look at these boundaries and make sure all residents of rural Colorado are getting fair representation in the transportation planning process and have the opportunity to participate in the conversation,” Inzeo said. “CDOT will have robust outreach should this language pass—just as we have done with other efforts that the legislature has directed.”
The House could reject the Senate amendment. Assistant House Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who is another lead sponsor of the bill, said she plans to closely review the change.
“We need to have a conversation about it,” she said.
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.