Senate passes $5.3B transportation package backed by local governments, business groups

Sponsors say SB-260 is ‘not a perfect bill’ but stress urgent need to fund maintenance and modernization projects

Steve Fenberg and Bob Rankin
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, listens while Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, speaks about Senate Bill 21-260 on May 17, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

The Colorado Senate on Monday gave final approval to a $5.3 billion transportation-funding package, sending the bill to the state House of Representatives and bringing lawmakers one step closer to achieving a long-sought-after agreement to fund a backlog of infrastructure needs.

“We see it every day in our roads and bridges that are falling apart, as we drive over potholes and have to repair our cars, as we sit in traffic, as we don’t have multimodal choices,” state Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Thornton and chair of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, said prior to Monday’s vote. “We’re falling behind. It’s impacting our economy, it’s impacting our quality of life.”

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Senate Bill 21-260, passed by a 20-15 vote of the Senate, 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 fees on gasoline sales, ridesharing apps, deliveries, vehicle registrations and more. Another $1.5 billion would come from the state’s general fund and a federal stimulus package.

The majority of the new funding would go towards maintenance and new construction on roads and highways across the state, with smaller amounts set aside for multimodal options and vehicle electrification. The bill’s powerful backers include business groups and Gov. Jared Polis, but conservatives have criticized its many fee hikes, and some environmental and public-transit advocates say it doesn’t do enough to expand multimodal options or limit increases in pollution from highway expansions.

“This is not a perfect bill, but it is a compromised and negotiated bill that, generally speaking, the business community supports, that mayors and local governments from all over our state support,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, said on the floor Monday. “This is something that is going to touch each and every Coloradan, that is going to improve transportation for each and every city and county across Colorado.”

“This is something that is going to touch each and every Coloradan, that is going to improve transportation for each and every city and county across Colorado.” — Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg

Monday’s Senate vote was mostly along party lines, with Sen. Kevin Priola of Adams County the only Republican to vote in favor of the bill and Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail the lone Democrat in opposition.

Republicans objected to many of the bill’s environmental provisions, including the more than $700 million it allocates for the construction of charging stations and other vehicle electrification initiatives. Sen. Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction, said that there wasn’t enough funding for highway construction and maintenance in the bill, and suggested that more could be accomplished through public-private partnerships and other efforts outside of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“Some will claim victory here today, based on environmental justice, or whatever phrase — social inequities, whatever you want to call it,” Scott said. “But what have we really done to all the citizens of Colorado? We haven’t solved the problem they told us to come here and solve.”

SB-260 underwent a round of amendments during a lengthy floor debate on Friday, and it now includes new provisions that supporters say will help address the disproportionate impacts of vehicle and road pollution on low-income communities and people of color. Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, who represents communities in north Denver that are among the most impacted by highway pollution, said Monday that she was initially opposed to the bill, but the amendments were enough to win her support.

“My constituents know exactly what ‘increased capacity’ means,” Gonzales said. “My friends and neighbors who suffer from asthma know the imposition of the (Interstate 70) expansion a generation ago destroyed the health and well-being of thousands of people.”

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

The new revenue sources 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 in gas-powered vehicles, or a 15-cent fee on trips in EVs; and a 27-cent fee on online retail deliveries. Electric car owners would also be required to pay higher vehicle registration fees, which would be indexed to inflation — a measure aimed at ensuring a sustainable revenue stream for road funding as the transition to EVs accelerates and fewer drivers pay gas taxes and fees.

The bill’s added gas fee has drawn opposition from some conservative groups, including the dark-money groups Americans for Prosperity and Colorado Rising State Action, which have threatened to respond by backing a ballot initiative to cut the state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been increased from its current level of 22 cents per gallon since 1991.

Such disagreements have prevented Colorado lawmakers from reaching a deal on a major boost to transportation funding for years, and attempts to ask voters to support new funding mechanisms at the ballot box have also failed. But now, approval by the Democratic-controlled House and Polis’ signature are all that stands in the way of the historic proposal becoming law.

“I am incredibly proud of the balance that this bill strikes as well as the urgency with which it acts,” Winter said in a statement. “This bill represents the future of transportation in our state, and it’s a future we can all be proud of.”

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