Cone zones and barricades are going to be part of Colorado’s freeway landscape for a long time if Gov. Bill Owens gets his $11.1 billion highway budget through the state legislature.
Owens told members of local Rotary groups meeting in Colorado Springs last week that Colorado will need that much money if it’s not going to fall further behind in road and bridge construction, No tax increases are needed to fund the plan, Owens said.
Owens announced last Monday that he is running for re-election.
How exactly does one raise more than $11 billion with no new taxes? Simplified, here is the plan: boost the amount of state sales tax dedicated to highways from 10.3 percent to 15 percent, use toll roads to pay for some projects, and promote public-private partnerships.
“Increased transportation funding can and must be accomplished by reprioritizing the state budget and without increasing taxes,” Owens said. “It’s time for transportation to have an equal seat at the table when it comes to our state budget.”
In the past decade, population has grown by 30 percent, yet Colorado’s infrastructure improvements failed to keep pace with economic and population growth, Owens said.
Rep. Keith King (R-Colorado Springs) is pushing the governor’s proposal as sponsor of House Bill 02-1310, which guarantees the investment of $100 million each year on transportation.
It also raises the amount of sales tax devoted to transportation by about five percent. Finally, it codifies the Colorado Department of Transportation’s ability to create a statewide tolling authority to promote new toll projects.
The state expected to complete 29 important highway projects over the next 50 years. Under his plan, Owens says it will take much less time.
“By putting the sales tax toward them, we reduce that time to 25 years,” Owens said. “By bonding those projects, we reduce that time to 10 years.”
The state has also been slow to use toll roads to speed up construction of roads, said Owens. That must change, he said.
“I don’t propose tolling existing roads,” Owens said. “But, we need more flexibility.” For example, it makes sense to have a toll road and a free road side by side in some situations, the governor said.
“If you take a car off of one road and put it on the other (toll or free), there is a benefit,” said Owens. “If you use the toll road, you can go faster; have less traffic. And that reduces traffic on the free road.”
Owens’ plan comes at a critical time, officials at Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce said.
“The business community in Colorado Springs has consistently said that transportation is its number one priority,” said Will Temby, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. “The governor’s plan builds on the increased state funding already provided for transportation and it continues the commitment to address Colorado’s most pressing problem.”
Colorado Democrats agree with the key premise of Owens’ plan – that new roads must be built. But roads should not be built at the expense of everything else, Democrats say.
“I don’t think it (HB 02-1310) is fiscally responsible,” said House Minority Leader Jennifer Veiga. The governor uses a “rosier” set of numbers to compile his plan, Veiga said.
“If we’re going to have a better economic picture (next year), we can come back to the table and talk,” Veiga said. “Let’s make sure we’re fiscally responsible,” she said.
Toll roads might make sense, Veiga said, under some circumstances.
“But there’s no sunset provision for toll roads under the governor’s plan,” Veiga said. “Once the roads are paid for, we could go on collecting tolls for another 15 or 20 years,” Veiga said. That, she said, is not right.
HB 02-1310 will pass in some manner in the House, Veiga said. But it is not likely to pass in its current form in the Senate, Veiga said. The Democratic transportation plan has no toll road component.
Chamber of Commerce officials said at a news conference Friday following the Rotary session that they support Owens’ plan 100 percent.
“The Chamber will actively pursue the adoption of this plan in the legislature,” Temby said. “We will provide whatever resources we can to help get this legislation passed.”