Does the Pikes Peak region get its fair share of state and federal transportation funding?
That question was asked to several local elected officials. To a man, and to a woman, they agreed: It doesn’t.
Randy Purvis, having served almost four terms on the Colorado Springs City Council (1987-1999, 2003-present), was brief and to the point. “We never have,” he said.
County Commissioner Jim Bensberg was more diplomatic, but no less direct.
“What we get just doesn’t seem to be adequate to our needs, compared to what some other parts of the state get,” he said.
And, as previously reported, all the candidates in attendance at a recent 5th Congressional District forum agreed that transportation needs in Colorado Springs, and the entire district, are woefully underfunded.
This belief is not new.
A dozen years ago, responding to a City Council inquiry, then-Colorado Springs Budget Director Mike Anderson wrote a lengthy memo, which pointed out that although the Springs accounted for nearly 14 percent of state gasoline tax revenue, only between 7 percent and 9 percent of transportation capital improvement funding had gone to the city.
Is Colorado Springs simply being outsmarted by the folks in Denver — whose roads seem to be newer, wider and less congested? Why isn’t the entirety of Interstate 25 six lanes? Why doesn’t Colorado Springs have a high-speed eastern bypass? And why did it take the state so long to provide funding for the Colorado Springs Metro Expansion project?
The answers to these questions are neither simple nor obvious.
Transportation funding is not just a complex subject, it’s a bizarrely complex subject.
The Colorado Department of Transportation distributes a 71-page “Elected Official’s Guide to CDOT,” replete with graphs, pie charts and bewilderingly opaque sentences.
An example: “Similar to the STIP, the TIP is updated every two years, and under SAFETEA-LU will only need to be updated every four years.”
If you don’t know what they’re talking about, you need only refer to an index of acronyms in the back of the guide that covers 12 single-spaced pages.
Transportation funding comes from four sources: the state tax on fuel, the federal tax on fuel, the state general fund and bond proceeds.
In the 2005-06 budget cycle, revenue from all sources (excluding bond proceeds) amounted to $1.2 billion. Of that, $268 million was distributed by the state to cities and counties according to a statutory formula. Another $99 million went to the Department of Public Safety, principally to fund the Highway Patrol.
That left $817 million for CDOT.
Of that money, only 3 percent is controlled by the legislature. The remaining 97 percent is appropriated by the State Transportation Commission, a non-partisan body whose 11 members, each representing a transportation district, are appointed by the governor.
If you’re inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, here’s a good place to start. Of the 11 commissioners, five represent Denver and surrounding communities. A sixth commissioner represents the Interstate 70 corridor.
Doesn’t that mean that Colorado Springs will always be the odd man out, forever Avis to Denver’s Hertz? Is it any wonder that Denver’s enormous T-REX project is near completion, while the much smaller COSMIX project is barely under way? Could there be a reason that I-25 has six to eight lanes as far south as Castle Rock, and then turns into a 1950s artifact — an original four-lane interstate highway.
Terry Schooler, who has represented Colorado Springs on the Transportation Commission for three years, doesn’t agree that the Pikes Peak region is getting short shrift.
“I’ve been very pleased by the way we make decisions,” Schooler said. “The commissioners try to take care of the entire system.”
Schooler denies that the commission has a regional bias, stressing that decisions are driven by objective criteria.
Asked why the southern portion of I-25 hasn’t been widened, Schooler patiently instructs a reporter about the intricacies of transportation funding.
“We’ve got about $800 million,” he said. “But look at the bottom line — after maintenance, operations, planning, safety, equipment maintenance and replacement, we only have a little more than $100 million in annually generated revenue for projects such as COSMIX — and that’s for the whole state.”
But what about Referendum C money?
“That’s going to help, but it’s still far short of the need,” Schooler said. “The real problem is not the way the pot is divided, but the fact that the pot is too small.”
But small as the pot is, isn’t the Pikes Peak region getting less than its share?
“Well, let’s face it,” he said, “if we allocated money on the basis of population, or road mileage, or amount of tax collected, the Denver area would get almost all of it.”
Schooler said that it is unrealistic to expect that all gas tax payments generated by the Pikes Peak region be spent in the Pikes Peak region. CDOT is responsible for road-building and maintenance throughout the state, and rural, thinly-populated counties don’t generate enough dollars to maintain their highways.
Huerfano County can’t afford to rebuild or maintain I-25 for example, but does that mean the state should simply abandon 40 miles of interstate highway?
Yet national statistics seem to show that Colorado metropolitan areas, compared to cities elsewhere, are underfunded. During the five years between 1998-2003, considering only the federal fuel tax, Colorado municipalities incurred a deficit of $455 million, which, when the state tax is added, soars to more than $1 billion.
Large cities with extensive transit systems and small cities in states with powerful congressional delegations fared extremely well. New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh took in a combined $9 billion more than they paid, while Anchorage, Alaska, raked in an $836 million surplus.
Adding insult to injury, transportation funding gets siphoned away by clever bureaucratic maneuvers.
For example, although the Highway Patrol is funded by fuel taxes, revenue generated by fines and fees flows into the state general fund — and isn’t dedicated to transportation. On a local level, the state Department of Revenue collects the 1 percent sales tax levied by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, disburses it to the PPRTA and charges $432,000 annually to perform this service.
In the Washington labyrinth, it’s easy to assume that folks who are paid to collect and disburse the national fuel tax are asleep at the wheel. Studying the Department of Transportation’s Web site, the Business Journal noted a minor error in addition: $10 billion. The error was corrected on subsequent pages.
Commissioner Bensberg, who served as an aide to Sen. Wayne Allard in Washington for several years, notes wryly that politics drives most congressional funding. He was “dismayed, but not surprised” that Anchorage collected $836 million while Colorado Springs paid out $95 million.
In a series of conversations with Bensberg, Schooler and other elected/appointed officials, it became clear that four closely related, interlocking phenomena may influence these shortfalls.
No. 1: Colorado is a large, mountainous, relatively lightly populated state with severe winter weather, and gas tax dollars will always subsidize rural Colorado.
No. 2: Denver, with its large transit system and its control of the Transportation Commission, will always receive a disproportionate share of federal and state transportation dollars.
No. 3: Colorado Springs hasn’t had a powerful voice in Washington who could direct some of the federal transportation pork to the Pikes Peak region. The area’s first priority has always been to retain its military bases, not to improve the transportation system. And that likely won’t change, with a newcomer representing the Springs in the next Congress.
No. 4: The Taxpayers Bill of Rights. Since the passage of the tax limitation amendment to the Colorado Constitution in 1992, the state has refunded $3.2 billion in “excess” revenue to taxpayers via rebates or tax cuts. And although it’s uncertain how much of that revenue, if appropriated, would have been designated for Springs-area transportation needs, it might have been substantial.
And if that’s not enough, Schooler has a fifth phenomenon.
“Our principal source of transportation funding is the gas tax — and that’s a declining revenue source,” he said. “As gas gets more expensive, people will drive less and get more efficient cars, and per capita consumption goes down. The cars still degrade the roads, but they use less gas.”
Schooler is not optimistic about the future. He points out that, although the transportation network is vital to the state’s economy, there is no statewide network of activists demanding more money for the roads.
During the last two decades, citizen groups have successfully sponsored constitutional amendments which created dedicated funding for open space, historic preservation and K-12 education.
Arguably, all of those amendments reduced the amount of money available for transportation.
But, as Schooler acknowledges, local transportation initiatives with clearly defined objectives have passed easily in Colorado Springs and Denver.
Is it possible that a proposal modeled after the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, which voters approved in 2004, could pass statewide?
Schooler hopes so.
“If we’re going to have the kind of transportation system that we want and need — just to drive to work and back, have enough capacity on the interstates, go to the mountains for the weekend — we’ll have to fund it,” he said.
How much will it cost? At least $1 billion annually, Schooler said.
He was asked when he thought, under current funding scenarios, Colorado Springs could expect to see I-25 widened to six lanes.
“A number of years, certainly,” Schooler said. “These projects are so expensive and divisive — they’re projecting $240 million just to do a few miles of Highway 24 on the West Side — and there are a lot of people who just don’t want to build it at all.”
Metro Areas with Large Transit Systems Get a Greater Share of Federal Tax
|1998-2003||Federal Highway Accounts||Federal Transit Accounts||Gain/Loss||Pennies Returned on the Dollar|
|Gas Taxes Paid||Spending||Gas Taxes Paid||Spending||Hwy only||Hwy +Transit|
|Austin-San Marcos, TX||956,014,000||742,180,000||143,402,000||94,321,000||-262,915,000||$0.78||$0.76|
|Baton Rouge, LA||417,563,000||385,814,000||62,634,000||5,887,000||-88,497,000||$0.92||$0.82|
|Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX||278,119,000||201,153,000||41,718,000||1,514,000||-117,169,000||$0.72||$0.63|
|Benton Harbor, MI||99,030,000||164,255,000||14,855,000||1,230,000||51,601,000||$1.66||$1.45|
|Boise City, ID||328,312,000||358,312,000||49,247,000||5,279,000||-13,969,000||$1.09||$0.96|
|Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito, TX||185,216,000||279,951,000||27,782,000||4,970,000||71,923,000||$1.51||$1.34|
|Bryan-College Station, TX||111,188,000||80,910,000||16,678,000||0||-46,957,000||$0.73||$0.63|
|Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY||564,335,000||535,765,000||84,650,000||38,143,000||-75,077,000||$0.95||$0.88|
|Cedar Rapids, IA||129,913,000||53,267,000||19,487,000||8,997,000||-87,136,000||$0.41||$0.42|
|Charleston-North Charleston, SC||419,578,000||682,966,000||62,937,000||6,451,000||206,902,000||$1.63||$1.43|
|Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC||995,261,000||937,536,000||149,289,000||56,241,000||-150,772,000||$0.94||$0.87|
|Colorado Springs, CO||275,703,000||198,118,000||41,355,000||23,740,000||-95,201,000||$0.72||$0.70|
|Colorado Springs’ rank per column, from greatest, of 265||89||122||89||58||207||202||190|
|Corpus Christi, TX||259,391,000||196,401,000||38,909,000||16,348,000||-85,550,000||$0.76||$0.71|
|Dallas-Fort Worth, TX||3,858,417,000||2,500,289,000||578,763,000||837,728,000||-1,099,163,000||$0.65||$0.75|
|Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL||209,989,000||201,549,000||31,498,000||8,934,000||-31,004,000||$0.96||$0.87|
|Daytona Beach, FL||297,363,000||317,623,000||44,604,000||28,421,000||4,076,000||$1.07||$1.01|
|Des Moines, IA||303,408,000||451,341,000||45,511,000||16,995,000||119,417,000||$1.49||$1.34|
|Detroit-Ann Arbor-Flint, MI||3,213,659,000||2,897,449,000||482,049,000||158,831,000||-639,428,000||$0.90||$0.83|
|Eau Claire, WI||89,541,000||135,081,000||13,431,000||1,994,000||34,104,000||$1.51||$1.33|
|El Paso, TX||405,528,000||369,308,000||60,829,000||30,493,000||-66,557,000||$0.91||$0.86|
|Fort Collins-Loveland, CO||141,307,000||53,921,000||21,196,000||7,974,000||-100,608,000||$0.38||$0.38|
|Fort Myers-Cape Coral, FL||274,932,000||95,620,000||41,240,000||6,652,000||-213,901,000||$0.35||$0.32|
|Fort Pierce-Port St. Lucie, FL||193,317,000||145,053,000||28,998,000||3,508,000||-73,754,000||$0.75||$0.67|
|Fort Smith, AR-OK||177,428,000||216,927,000||26,614,000||0||12,884,000||$1.22||$1.06|
|Fort Walton Beach, FL||98,370,000||66,723,000||14,756,000||1,924,000||-44,479,000||$0.68||$0.61|
|Fort Wayne, IN||365,915,000||309,143,000||54,887,000||7,552,000||-104,107,000||$0.84||$0.75|
|Glens Falls, NY||62,378,000||77,340,000||9,357,000||1,535,000||7,139,000||$1.24||$1.10|
|Grand Forks, ND-MN||69,349,000||81,006,000||10,402,000||186,000||1,440,000||$1.17||$1.02|
|Grand Junction, CO||65,846,000||43,747,000||9,877,000||985,000||-30,991,000||$0.66||$0.59|
|Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland, MI||628,945,000||660,654,000||94,342,000||24,533,000||-38,099,000||$1.05||$0.95|
|Great Falls, MT||69,023,000||104,188,000||10,353,000||1,646,000||26,457,000||$1.51||$1.33|
|Green Bay, WI||137,315,000||90,921,000||20,597,000||12,373,000||-54,618,000||$0.66||$0.65|
|Greensboro–Winston-Salem–High Point, NC||836,551,000||766,107,000||125,483,000||15,421,000||-180,505,000||$0.92||$0.81|
|Iowa City, IA||73,329,000||32,634,000||10,999,000||2,146,000||-49,549,000||$0.45||$0.41|
|Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol, TN-VA||373,104,000||226,272,000||55,966,000||1,540,000||-201,258,000||$0.61||$0.53|
|Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, MI||276,161,000||188,758,000||41,424,000||9,811,000||-119,016,000||$0.68||$0.63|
|Kansas City, MO-KS||1,318,396,000||1,084,566,000||197,759,000||44,901,000||-386,689,000||$0.82||$0.74|
|La Crosse, WI-MN||74,017,000||66,181,000||11,103,000||2,821,000||-16,118,000||$0.89||$0.81|
|Lake Charles, LA||128,168,000||103,084,000||19,225,000||0||-44,310,000||$0.80||$0.70|
|Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL||268,897,000||197,327,000||40,334,000||9,091,000||-102,813,000||$0.73||$0.67|
|Lansing-East Lansing, MI||272,495,000||327,684,000||40,874,000||18,434,000||32,748,000||$1.20||$1.10|
|Las Cruces, NM||131,908,000||163,949,000||19,786,000||1,376,000||13,631,000||$1.24||$1.09|
|Las Vegas, NV-AZ||955,899,000||983,058,000||143,385,000||82,875,000||-33,351,000||$1.03||$0.97|
|Little Rock-North Little Rock, AR||520,077,000||388,103,000||78,012,000||17,142,000||-192,844,000||$0.75||$0.68|
|Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, CA||8,061,846,000||6,817,169,000||1,209,277,000||1,291,533,000||-1,162,422,000||$0.85||$0.87|
|Melbourne-Titusville-Palm Bay, FL||290,246,000||131,741,000||43,537,000||7,058,000||-194,984,000||$0.45||$0.42|
|Miami-Fort Lauderdale, FL||917,852,000||561,136,000||137,678,000||390,188,000||-104,206,000||$0.61||$0.90|
|Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI||1,418,181,000||1,298,734,000||212,727,000||408,294,000||76,120,000||$0.92||$1.05|
|Myrtle Beach, SC||170,925,000||319,984,000||25,639,000||140,000||123,559,000||$1.87||$1.63|
|New Orleans, LA||869,517,000||445,209,000||130,428,000||86,577,000||-468,159,000||$0.51||$0.53|
|New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA||7,864,762,000||9,046,366,000||1,179,714,000||6,876,710,000||6,878,600,000||$1.15||$1.76|
|Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, VA-NC||1,025,261,000||1,909,736,000||153,789,000||68,024,000||798,710,000||$1.86||$1.68|
|Oklahoma City, OK||914,159,000||768,114,000||137,124,000||17,544,000||-265,624,000||$0.84||$0.75|
|Panama City, FL||86,119,000||52,031,000||12,918,000||3,035,000||-43,972,000||$0.60||$0.56|
|Philadelphia-Wilmington-Atlantic City, PA-NJ-DE-MD||3,390,739,000||3,205,061,000||508,611,000||667,226,000||-27,063,000||$0.95||$0.99|
|Pine Bluff, AR||65,932,000||138,273,000||9,890,000||0||62,451,000||$2.10||$1.82|
|Punta Gorda, FL||93,326,000||87,746,000||13,999,000||1,354,000||-18,225,000||$0.94||$0.83|
|Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC||780,191,000||913,432,000||117,029,000||43,144,000||59,356,000||$1.1