It’s hard to go a single day without hearing someone praise Colorado’s quality of life. But you’d be hard pressed to find the same homilies sung about the state’s road system. And don’t even ask about congestion unless you’ve got a few hours to share in a mutual grief.
“I just pulled up a ranking,” said Amy Ford, spokesperson for the Colorado’s Department of Transportation during a recent telephone interview. “We are in the bottom third when it comes to (interstate) pavement.” Things look considerably better when it comes to rating the quality of our bridges. “We’re actually 13th best on the quality of bridges.” Not exactly the kind of selling points for a fast-growing state like Colorado.
Heading off in almost any direction and you’ll find yourself in a state with better infrastructure, especially if you’re going directly west. Colorado’s westerly neighbor, Utah, ranks near the top in quality of its roads and bridges. But it would be premature---or just wrong---to lay all the blame for the conditions of our roads on CDOT. The money’s just not there and state voters are apparently not in the mood to change that reality.
Last November, voters gave an unequivocal ‘no’ to Proposition 110. It would have authorized Colorado to borrow up to $6 billion for road improvements over the next twenty years. The money would have been repaid by hiking the state’s sales tax to 3.5 percent from its current 2 percent. The hike would have raised $750 million or more annually. As part of Prop 110, about $115 million would have been dedicated to new or different modes of travel as well as expanding bicycle lanes and bus routes.
While Colorado is not the only state with infrastructure issues, it is unique in its ability to raise taxes to pay for road and bridge improvements without a statewide vote. The breaking mechanism on new taxes---whether to fund roads, education or almost anything else---is something called The TABOR Amendment, also known as the ‘Taxpayers Bill of Rights.’
TABOR has been the law since 1992. What TABOR does is force state voters to decide on raising taxes---any new tax. Without a vote, the state’s only alternative for new revenue is boosting fees on alcohol or cannabis, oftentimes referred to as ‘sin taxes.’ The state can hike fees on automobile tags and drivers licenses. But revenue from either would be insufficient to make a significant dent in the current quality of state infrastructure.
Colorado’s economy is often listed at or near the top in the entire country. Unemployment now hovers at around 2 percent. Contrasted with other states, Colorado’s population is booming and the money is flowing. But without new taxes, don’t expect major improvements. “Almost all of the state budget allocated to transportation is spent maintaining what we have now,” said attorney Mike Feeley, former Colorado Senate Minority Leader. “We’re not adding new capacity.”
Feeley, along with former Colorado Senator David Skaggs and more than 30 elected and former serving lawmakers, has been embroiled in a court battle to overturn TABOR for several years. They maintain that TABOR is unconstitutional and robs state legislatures of the right---and responsibility---to address budget issues by raising new taxes.
One tax that could be used for road repairs and improvements would be the state’s gasoline tax. It has remained constant for more than a generation. It was last raised in 1991, the year before TABOR became the law. “Since then, gas tax revenue in terms of real inflation adjusted dollars keeps gong down even though there are a whole lot more people crowding our highways,” said Feeley. “Increased fuel efficiency---a good thing---has contributed to the decline, as well.”
Colorado drivers currently pay 22 cents a gallon on gasoline. But adjusted for inflation, said Feeley, the state “receives 30 percent less in real dollars than the revenue it received in 2000.” There are no plans to raise the state’s gas tax. By contrast, Utah legislators voted in 2015 to boost its gas tax by a quarter a gallon. The money was dedicated to infrastructure improvement.
Despite its budgetary limitations, Colorado is not standing still on road improvements particularly on those roads that move the most people. It is working on or has projects in the pipeline all across the state. Two of its biggest undertakings involve upgrading I-70 west from Denver and adding a lane in each direction on I-25 connecting Fort Collins and Larimer County to the metro area.
Still, things are not going to get better fast and it’s not just commuters who’ll pay the price, though the price they’ll pay is anything but modest. Sitting in traffic, said Ford, costs drivers “about $2,000 a year.” Also, “every hour delay on I-70 adds up to about $1 million an hour,” a figure tabulated on lost revenue for merchants, shippers and resorts.
Beyond fiscal costs, there is also another cost. In 2017, “we lost 650 people on our roads,” Ford said. Then there is also property damage as a result of poorly or minimally maintained roadways. CDOT’s battle, though, is not unique. But until Colorado voters decide they’ve had enough gridlock, potholes or creaky bridges, it will remain a game of ‘catch-up’ for state infrastructure.