Legislature largely fails to deal with transportation, leaving Colorado at a crossroads

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SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. (The Gazette) - Jim Jacobs of Kansas City, Mo., kept an eye on his iPhone on Memorial Day morning, blindly jabbing a fork into his hash browns and poached eggs at the Sunshine Cafe in Dillon.

"The speeds are up to orange," he told his wife, Sarah, citing Google Traffic. "We should go."

The wreck the Jacobses were riding out on Memorial Day had traffic backed up from Idaho Springs nearly 13 miles to Georgetown, blockading the road for those who thought they would leave early to beat the afternoon rush back from the holiday weekend.

Vehicles moved eastward so slowly you could see the spokes of their wheels churning like concrete mixers.

Which, of course, is not uncommon. Whether it's a wreck, weather, or just the sheer volume of traffic, driving on either Colorado's Interstate 70 or Interstate 25 can grind into a frustrating, even nightmarish adventure. Flights are missed. People are forced to urinate in bottles or worse. Wear, tear and wasted gas while gridlocked are routine.

Transportation funding in the state has in no way kept pace with population or traffic counts. At the Capitol, no middle ground has been found to raise sufficient revenue - $20 billion over the next two decades - to do anything more than knowingly fall further behind.

Republicans won't raise taxes. Democrats won't cut social services. Republicans control the Senate. Democrats control the House.

"You're never going to pay much of a political price in a Republican primary for being against raising taxes," independent political analyst Eric Sondermann said. "And if you're in a Democratic primary, you're never going to pay much of a price for prioritizing services and things like schools over transportation."

Those who pay are stuck in traffic.

In interviews in Summit County over two days of the holiday weekend, people who universally love Colorado universally hate its traffic. They think even less of the politicians who have let the traffic jams overshadow the state's great skiing and laid-back populace.

Mountain traffic even has a theme song, "I-70 Release Me" by the Colorado rock-bluegrass group Rapidgrass.

"They aren't putting (the traffic) on billboards," Jon Newsome, a Denver resident who rock climbs most weekends, said while filling up his tank in Georgetown. "As long as people have been bitching about it, you would think they would do something."

Other than tinker around the edges, they have not.

And it isn't just the motoring public that must contend with the state's bottlenecked interstates.

At a breakfast organized by the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC on May 16, economic and community development expert Rocky Scott, who sits on the state Transportation Commission, painted a grim picture for chamber members.

"Imagine if you would if I-25 were to be allowed to become so congested and so unsafe that Fort Carson troops can't reliably get to their facilities to train on schedule. What does that mean for the future of Fort Carson in Colorado?

"Clearly it's not good."

Colorado is trying to fend off base closures and troop cuts to the state's third-largest moneymaker, accounting for a $27 billion annual economic impact. Military posts in El Paso County employed 51,958 people in 2014, according to the latest assessment from the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Scott said a transportation system that works isn't just about economics, it's a part of a community's daily quality of life, and decision-makers need to think about the mess their handing their children and grandchildren.

"If will be intolerable if we don't solve the problem in the near term," he told the chamber. "We have to work together to get this done."

Financially and politically, Colorado is stuck at a crossroads.

Slow go

CDOT depends on gas taxes that haven't gone up since Vanilla Ice was making hits. Its funding from the state budget peaked at $400 million in 2006, according to the highway department.

When the legislative session started in January, leaders from both parties said paying for transportation needs - a list topped by faster flows on interstates 70 and 25 - was their highest priority.

Instead, Senate Republicans killed two bills that would have asked voters in November to raise the state sales tax to put billions into roads and transit. One proposed a new sales tax, the other tapped the existing state budget and took away a tax break for older vehicles.

To meet that $20 billion need, lawmakers instead passed an omnibus bill that puts in less than a 10th of that, in a best-case scenario.

More realistically, it's about a 20th.

While nearly $2 billion sounds like a lot, in perspective, the figure dries up like roadkill in oncoming traffic.

Off the top, rural counties get 25 percent, not major highways most Coloradans get stuck on. Transit gets another 10 percent.

The deal also depends on the state selling state buildings and leasing them back.

That leaves about a billion dollars. Putting that in further perspective, widening Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock and Floyd Hill on Interstate 70 west of Golden are each expected to cost $500 million.

Build those two projects, and there's nothing left for ski traffic in Eagle, Summit and Clear Creek counties, or for the daily crawl from Denver to Fort Collins or anything else.

What does a billion in funding mean to $20 billion in needs?

"It's going to add years to all these projects," said state highway director Shailen Bhatt, sounding apologetic for the bad hand he's been dealt.

What's more is the new deal is a year-to-year proposition. That's how voters got cut out of the decision. Under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, any debt that lasts more than a year has to be decided on the ballot.

But year to year can be a dicey thing. For historical perspective on that, look to 2009, when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 228, which lawmakers said would put $200 million a year into transportation for five years whenever Colorado clawed out of the Great Recession.

But a funny thing happened on the road to recovery.

Last year, Senate Bill 228 provided close to $200 million, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. But this session, legislators dropped it to $79 million for this year and next.

The omnibus bill passed this year actually takes away $160 million Senate Bill 228 would have provided CDOT in each of the next two years and gives it to rural schools.

The "grand compromise" that Democrats and Republicans promised on transportation at the beginning of the session ended up being mostly an accounting maneuver.

Do the right thing

Though the issue has lived and died in the House and Senate for years, Gov. John Hickenlooper is headed into his last session as Colorado's chief executive with transportation unresolved. He told Colorado Politics he knows transportation will be part of his legacy.

"I think we're going to get something done next year," he said in a phone call. "To leave the state without the infrastructure to accommodate the growth we've helped create is not acceptable."

Some Republicans, and a few Democrats, have grumbled since the session ended that the governor should have put forth a plan and put his political muscle and bully pulpit behind it.

The governor's office, however, yielded to the Democratic leadership in the House and the Republicans in charge of the Senate, who wanted to craft their bipartisan solution. Hickenlooper's legislative staff monitored and shaped the bill behind the scenes with amendments and analysis.

After the effort failed, Hickenlooper considered calling a special session, but after he pressed legislative leaders he determined all it would yield is "political theater," he said, because there was no room for compromise this soon after.

Hickenlooper will push harder over the next year, possibly for a solution with a smaller tax request. He might seek to limit the proposal to major highways that carry the bulk of the travelers, and leave out transit and local transportation needs, which together received more than half of the failed bipartisan bill.

"I'm pretty agnostic about where the new revenue comes from, but we do need new revenue in this," Hickenlooper said. "I'm wide open as to whether it's a sales tax, a gas tax, a property tax, an income tax or some kind of fees. We don't have this kind of extra money in our budget now."

The governor said he's focused and determined to find something that works. But legislative leaders said the same thing in January.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, was pleasant but curt when Colorado Politics caught up to him in the hallway the day before the session adjourned last month.

Baumgardner put his respected name behind a bipartisan bill his fellow Republicans killed in committee, because it asked for half-cent sales tax to raise about $700 million annually - including about $300 million for CDOT - over the next 20 years.

He agreed that lawmakers hadn't done enough for transportation but said all they could do is "keep working on it."

Working on what? "Transportation," he said, smiling wearily and walking way.

Political analyst Sondermann said it's unlikely Hickenlooper or anyone else will pay a political price if they fail to address what's widely viewed as the state's most glaring growth issue.

Major political parties have carved out so many "safe" legislative districts that races are decided in the primaries. Democrats and Republicans are beckoned by silent dog whistles of party doctrine.

After 2018, Hickenlooper could be a candidate for national office, and Colorado roads won't be much of a factor to voters in, say, New Hampshire, especially if Hickenlooper keeps his nose out of the stinky political mess it's becoming.

"His legacy will be that he presided over this tremendous economic and population growth," Sondermann said. "And his legacy would be that he left the problems that came with that growth for the next governor."

Hickenlooper's highway director, Bhatt, gets uneasy with a question about political consequences and who should pay them.

"I don't think we should be thinking of it as a political price to be paid, but political courage needed," he said. "It's very easy to say, 'I'm not going to support this because it's politically unpopular,' but new taxes are never going to be popular.

"It should be about doing the right thing, and if you have to do something unpopular sometimes, well, that's still what you have to do."

The road ahead

Lawmakers might not like it, but voters in November still could weigh in on the issue.

Jon Caldara of the Denver-based conservative think tank the Independence Institute is promising a ballot initiative called Fix Our Damn Roads, which would make addressing traffic jams a top priority in the existing state budget.

That would drain off millions of dollars each year used by social programs, and transit wouldn't get anything.

On the other side, Fix It Colorado, a coalition of contractors and trade groups, also weighed whether to ask voters to pass a new tax or fee of some size to pay for transportation.

But Tony Milo, executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, said that plan is on hold, maybe until 2018. First, his camp wants the dust to settle on the omnibus bill that passed last session before deciding how much of a tax increase might be needed.

Also, more people will vote in next year's general election, when the governor and other statewide offices are on the ballot along with legislators. That might give a tax hike a better chance and provide more time to campaign for public support.

"We have a lot more work to do," Milo said.

Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads, a statewide coalition of chambers of commerce and other business leaders, said the state is parked in a position she thinks of as the "art of the possible," partially quoting Otto Von Bismarck.

The German chancellor concluded the thought with " . the attainable . the art of the next best." That's what Colorado leaders should think about, she said: That which is attainable.

"As we look to 2018, it remains paramount, and our focus, is to determine what is possible with voters and with legislative leaders to drive the conversation," Solin said.

"Addressing our transportation challenges is a critical quality-of-life issue. If we fail to act soon, pressure to close the proverbial doors to the state will begin to mount."

Utah in the meantime

Getting back to the Jacobses in Dillon, the young couple from Kansas City visit their family's condo in Summit County at least four times a year. They strategize to try to beat the traffic jams on Interstate 70, from the Colorado high country to the airport east of Denver. The two-hour trip can take four, they said.

"One time we were sitting on the interstate at Georgetown while our flight was taking off," Jim Jacobs explained of a Sunday 10 years ago.

"We didn't get another flight home until Monday afternoon."

The traffic, he said, is the reason the family would leave Colorado for a place they've been considering in Utah.

Sarah Jacobs said of her husband's fixation on Colorado's monumental traffic jams, "He obsesses over it."

Don't we all.