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A ribbon of two-lane road winds through the prairie in Larimer County, Colorado. (Ed Kosmicki, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado legislature Monday backed off a controversial change to the state’s transportation funding process — linking dollars more to population than road miles and other factors — after an outcry from leaders in rural communities, who feared the alteration would dramatically shift road and bridge money away from them and toward more populous areas. 

Democratic state lawmakers will instead require a study of how transportation planning regions, through which money is distributed, are drawn. 

While the study will take into consideration population, it will also weigh road miles, commercial use, tourism, transit and environmental effects. 

“This is just examining our existing structure for allocating funding and making sure that they are living up to those values,” said state Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat. “This is just a study to make sure we’re doing that.”

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The hullabaloo started earlier this month when Winter amended a bill adjusting a grant program that supports free bus and train rides to redraw transportation planning regions “in a manner that ensures that the state’s population is proportionally and equitably represented.” The idea, supported by the Colorado Department of Transportation, was to start spending more on transit and climate. 

“The transportation sector is the No. 1 carbon emitter. We will not meet our climate goals without addressing the transportation sector,” Winter said in an interview. “We have to make sure that transportation planning organizations are meeting those climate goals.”

But the amendment stoked outrage in rural communities, whose leaders said they weren’t consulted on the change and accused sponsors of the measure of quietly trying to siphon their transportation dollars. 

“This will hurt the economy of the Western Slope. It will disenfranchise rural areas across the state,” 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, told The Sun.

There are 15 transportation planning regions, or TPRs, in Colorado, made up of locally elected leaders. The TPRs 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. 

Traffic on the freeway.
I-25 traffic passes by newer development in Thornton, including Denver Premium Outlets, on Thursday. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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. The entire Denver metro area, which is where the majority of Coloradans live, makes up one transportation planning region, while the geographically huge but sparsely populated Eastern Plains is broken into two TPRs. 

That’s what makes rural transportation planning regions such a potent part of the state’s broader transportation-funding discussion.

The outcry over House Bill 1101 came as the measure was one vote from being sent to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk to be signed into law. The legislature, however, decided to reconsider, leading to a conference committee that met Monday to rework the policy and ask for the study as opposed to requiring that transportation planning regions be redrawn with population in mind. 

The conference committee adopted the study provision on a 4-2, party-line vote, with the panel’s two Republicans in opposition. 

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican on the conference committee, said the bill sponsors were still trying to “stifle the voice of rural Colorado.” She pointed out that Colorado law already lets state officials reconsider the boundaries of transportation planning regions. 

Kirkmeyer said even with the study change, the measure represents a “vulnerability” for rural parts of the state. 

State Rep. Marc Catlin, a Montrose Republican, agreed. “Studying the boundaries raises a lot of concern to the communities that I represent, and the rest of the Western Slope, because we’re not sure what that all means.”

Vince Rogalski, chairman of the Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee and the Gunnison Valley Transportation Planning Region, said he, too, is still concerned about what the study could mean for rural communities and their access to transportation funding. He argued that House Bill 1101 is unconstitutional because it violates the state’s rule barring legislation from dealing with more than one subject.

“The original bill without the amendments, everybody was OK with that,” Rogalski said. “So I’m not sure who’s wanting to sneak something in.”

Assistant House Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of House Bill 1101, pointed out that the study won’t change any transportation planning region boundaries. 

“We will require the proper stakeholding so that nobody’s in the position to repress rural Colorado,” she said. “But we do welcome and open a conversation amongst all of us on all of these topics.”

The final version of House Bill 1101 must be approved by the full Senate and House before advancing to Polis’ desk.

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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...