Colorado lawmakers unveil $5.3 billion proposal to solve ‘transportation crisis’

Bill would levy new fees to fund road construction, vehicle electrification efforts

Cars head south on Interstate 25 in Denver during rush hour traffic on on July 23, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

A broad coalition of state and local elected officials and Colorado business groups on Tuesday unveiled a new legislative proposal that they hope will bring an end to a years-long quest to secure billions in new funding for roads and other transportation infrastructure.

“For the first time, we are introducing something that isn’t just a band-aid, but is instead a real framework to future-proof our transportation system,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, said in a press conference at the State Capitol. “This is a big deal.”

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The bill unveiled Tuesday would allocate nearly $5.3 billion in funding for transportation over the next decade, $3.8 billion of which would come from a variety of new revenue mechanisms including fees on gasoline sales, ridesharing apps, deliveries, vehicle registrations and more. Another $1.5 billion would come from the state’s general fund and federal stimulus spending.

Supporters say the bill will help Colorado begin to address a backlog of badly-needed infrastructure improvements and could help the average Colorado driver save hundreds of dollars per year in costs associated with road congestion and vehicle maintenance needs caused by inferior roads. It would also allocate more than $700 million to vehicle electrification to support the state’s goal of putting nearly 1 million electric cars on the road by 2030.

“We have a transportation crisis in Colorado,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat from Denver. “Our highway system is 38th in the nation. We’re 47th when it comes to the pavement condition of rural interstates.”

“Coloradans are feeling the impact of our outdated transportation system when we sit in traffic, when our businesses can’t get goods to market, and our cars look twice as old as they really are,” Garnett added. “It doesn’t have to be this way, and the group of folks behind me are sick and tired of the status quo and want to see change.”

Sponsors of the transportation bill said Tuesday that they had held 132 meetings with various groups as they worked out the details of their proposal. Mike Kopp, president of business group Colorado Concern and chair of A Way Forward, a coalition of business organizations advocating a transportation-funding deal, called the bill “an enormous step in the right direction.”

The new funding mechanisms proposed by the bill include a per-gallon fee on gasoline sales, which would start at 2 cents next year and rise to 8 cents by 2028; a 30-cent fee on rideshare trips; and a 27-cent fee on online retail deliveries.

Jake Swanton, public policy director for ridesharing app Lyft, said that the bill would allow the company to “go further and go faster” in achieving its goal of 100% electric vehicles by 2030. Other supporters of the bill who spoke Tuesday included Elise Jones, director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and former Boulder County commissioner, and Carl Smith, state legislative director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

“It’s rare to see people of so many different perspectives come together around something we need to do,” said Gov. Jared Polis. “This bill is for you. It’s to finally fix our damn roads.”

Years in the making

Colorado lawmakers and advocates have tried for years to reach a deal on a major boost to transportation funding, spurred by flattening revenues from the state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised from its current level of 22 cents per gallon since 1991.

In 2018, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper and a coalition of business groups backed Proposition 110, a ballot initiative that would have raised $6 billion for road projects, financed by a temporary sales-tax hike. Voters soundly rejected the measure, 59% to 41%.

Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs, a Republican, was among the opponents of Proposition 110 three years ago, but joined Polis and state lawmakers on Tuesday to endorse the forthcoming funding proposal.

State Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Thornton, joined a bipartisan coalition of elected officials and business leaders to unveil a transportation funding bill on May 4, 2021. (Screenshot via Facebook)

“I’m a political realist, and I understand political compromise,” Suthers said. “I don’t see a better package coming from the Legislature or the voters any time soon, and I strongly believe we can’t kick this can down the road any longer.”

State Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Thornton and chair of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, said that the bill’s funding for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, as well as new public transit and pedestrian projects, represents “the future of what transportation is going to look like in Colorado.”

“This will help us reach our climate goals through electrification, and also by investing in multimodal transportation,” Winter said. “We know that increasing transportation choice is essential.”

A draft version of the funding plan released earlier this year included about $700 million in new funding for multimodal options, or 16% of the total. That amount has drawn criticism from some environmental groups and public transit advocates, who say they’re waiting to see the final details of the bill, which was formally introduced late Tuesday.

“I appreciate the leadership that was shown today and know the bill has big multimodal and clean vehicle investments along with important maintenance dollars,” Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, wrote in an email. “I look forward to analyzing the bill to ensure those investments are big enough, and that we have appropriate guardrails to ensure we don’t waste any dollars on highway projects that make it more difficult to solve our state’s transportation problems.”

The bill’s gas fee has also drawn opposition from some conservative groups, including the dark-money groups Americans for Prosperity and Colorado Rising State Action, which have threatened to back a ballot initiative to cut the gas tax in response. But supporters say that Colorado can’t afford to keep spending so little on maintaining and modernizing its transportation system.

“No more U-turns, no more detours,” Polis said. “It’s time for action to fix our roads and our transportation infrastructure. … That’s what this bill, which represents years of hard work, does.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected at 10:30 a.m., May 5, 2021, to reflect that the proposed fee on retail deliveries is 27 cents.

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