Despite what the Chinese calendar says, 2020 is the year of the bat, not the rat. And while the year of the bat will be defined by COVID-19, battleground election states, and battles in our nation’s streets, there are other pressing issues that require our attention too.
One of these is Colorado’s dangerously bad roads and bridges.
Last week the Common Sense Institute, a non-partisan research organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy, released a fresh analysis on this subject.
CSI is by all accounts is not a liberal think tank; quite the opposite.
Through CSI, a fellowship was awarded to Henry Sobanet and Ben Stein, two long- subject matter experts on finance and transportation. Sobanet was state budget director for governors Bill Owens and John Hickenlooper and served on the Colorado Transportation Commission. Stein was deputy state treasurer and CFO at the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The report covers how we got into this infrastructure crisis, the impact of technology on transportation, worst-case scenarios, and some thoughtful ways we can address the challenge.
The predominant problem is that most of the funding comes from gas taxes that are charged a flat amount per gallon. Unleaded gas has been taxed at $0.22 per gallon for the past 29 years. The decline of this revenue stream has been exacerbated by fuel efficiency, the advent of electric cars and major technological changes. Meanwhile, the costs of asphalt, concrete, and steel, have been growing faster than those declining revenues can keep up.
In just the last 10 years, 31 states have responded and reformed their transportation finances. Colorado is not on that list.
Look no further than Utah to see how a Republican-dominated state has invested in infrastructure and expanded highway lanes, giving them a distinct economic and quality of life advantage.
So how does Colorado successfully address such a huge issue during a pandemic and a recession? Sobanet and Stein have a realistic three-phase plan.
The initial “stabilization” phase would use the between now and the end of the recession to re-assess our respective revenue forecasts and traffic needs.
The “rehabilitation” phase, deals with the backlog of everyday maintenance, like pavement smoothness, bridge repairs, all the things that are cheaper to do than wait for something really big to break. This backlog is annually about $300 million; a shocking number but consider that if highway tax revenue from just 2004 had kept up with population growth and construction costs, there would be some $644 million more each year for this problem.
The report offers five ways to pay for this, from a higher income tax to charging Colorado drivers for each mile driven. A ten-cent increase in the gas tax would also pay for this.
The final “transformation” phase covers the potential expansion of the system’s capacity based on CDOT’s latest statewide survey and town halls. This next $3.2 billion of needs spans from rural roads all the way to some of the biggest pain points on Interstate 70. If you bonded to do this list, it would be another eight cents per gallon (there are some savings if you do both phases).
Sobanet and Stein recognize that asking people to pay more is tough and this issue has been in a political ditch for many years. In 2018, voters said no to two very different proposals to tackling the state’s transportation problem by wide margins.
Solving this infrastructure crisis will take a huge political lift. The fact that CSI is putting forward this study is a positive sign that important thought leaders on both sides of the aisle are not ready to shelve this issue.
The paper closes with a friendly challenge to the political and civic leaders in our state: “we believe the sweet spot of a good plan with moderate costs, and visible, accountable outcomes is within the capabilities of the political and civic circles in Colorado.”
Success will require those leading this effort to put aside preconceived notions or advocacy for a particular mode of transportation, a particular mode of finance, or preference for a particular region. The key is to work together in ways that have not occurred to date and to consider that some progress is vastly more useful than none.”
Now is the for our leaders to lean in and not retreat. TABOR failed twice before voters passed it in 1992 by a narrow margin. As policymakers consider the path forward on transportation, the three-phase approach in this paper merits serious consideration.
Doug Friednash is a Denver native, a partner with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck and the former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper.
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