A proposal to boost Colorado’s roads and other transportation infrastructure has garnered support from what one south metro Democrat calls a “historic coalition” — but Republican holdouts are sure to voice opposition.
“We have billions coming from the federal government — and possibly billions more from an infrastructure package — and Colorado Democrats decide to impose fees on every Coloradan?” state Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Republican of Parker, said through a spokesperson.
“I support funding for roads and bridges, but I oppose this effort. Democrats have avoided investing in our roads and bridges for years, and it’s not right to punish Coloradans for their failures," Smallwood continued.
The Democrats’ proposal, Senate Bill 21-260, announced on May 4, would raise about $3.8 billion in new revenue via fees such as the “road usage fee” — essentially a tax on gasoline — that would start at 2 cents per gallon and go up 1 cent annually to 8 cents. It would then be indexed to, or adjusted automatically for, inflation.
Democrats argue the proposal would provide long overdue funds after years of failed legislative attempts and failed ballot measures that asked voters to raise transportation funding.
“This is a reasonable and balanced approach to ensure that neither drivers, nor one particular industry, have to shoulder the entire burden of addressing our inadequate and outdated transportation funding levels,” state Rep. Meg Froelich, an Englewood Democrat, said in a statement.
The funding could support several critical projects in the south Denver metro region, including the Interstate 25 and Belleview Avenue interchange (a $22 million project) and a project along I-25 at the Denver Tech Center (costing $10 million), according to Froelich.
Supporters of the proposal have “brought together the business community, transit advocates, labor unions, and local government leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, to build a historic coalition,” Froelich said in the statement.
“Coloradans are sick and tired of sitting in traffic, replacing flat tires and spending thousands on vehicle repairs because our road conditions are some of the worst in the country,” state Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat of Centennial, said in a statement.
“We’re falling behind and losing our competitive edge to our neighboring states that have fixed their transportation funding challenges. This bill will create tens of thousands of good jobs, improve our air quality and modernize our broken transportation funding system," Sullivan continued.
Republican state Reps. Kevin Van Winkle, of Highlands Ranch, and Kim Ransom, of Douglas County, did not respond for comment.
Taxes can be spent by the Colorado General Assembly however lawmakers determine, while a fee must be spent on a specific purpose set in state law.
In the case of state Senate Bill 21-260, fees would go to funding sources that must spend the money on transportation services directly related to fees, according to a state House Democrats spokesman. For example, the road usage fee will go into the Highway User Tax Fund, and electric vehicle fees will go into an enterprise that supports electric vehicle infrastructure, such as charging stations.
— Ellis Arnold and Elliott Wenzler
Colorado Democrats formally rolled out their massive transportation fee-implementation and spending bill on May 4 with support from top business leaders and two Republicans, saying 2021 is the year to finally tackle the Holy Grail that is the state’s longstanding infrastructure deficit.
“This is the year we will make it happen,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said as Senate Bill 260 was introduced.
The bill would impose new fees on motorists purchasing gasoline and diesel fuel, while also adding additional costs to deliveries, rideshare trips and electric vehicle registrations. The fees would raise about $3.8 billion over the next decade and, paired with an infusion of the Legislature’s general fund, contribute to more than $5 billion on spending.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and state Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson were the two Republicans who joined Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis, at a news conference to announce the legislation.
“As a conservative Republican, I’m not here this afternoon because I’m a fan of everything going on with the Colorado Legislature these days — far from it,” Suthers said. “But I am here to support this transportation package, because I believe Colorado must move forward to invest in its transportation infrastructure, and this is the best, most collaborative effort that I’ve seen to do so.”
Suthers says he opposed a recent proposal to raise sales taxes to pay for Colorado’s transportation needs, but that he thinks the measure introduced May 4 strikes the best balance possible, making road users pay their fair share and lawmakers open their purse strings.
“While I personally would prefer perhaps a greater contribution of general fund, or more money into highway construction and less into multimodal, I’m a political realist and I understand political compromise,” he said. “And I don’t see a better package coming through the Legislature or the voters anytime soon. And I strongly believe we simply cannot kick this can down the road any longer.”
Mike Kopp, president and CEO of Colorado Concern, and Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, were also at the news conference to voice their support.
Kopp called the measure a “breakthrough step.”
The GOP support is notable because Republicans at the Legislature have generally chafed at the notion of raising fees to pay for transportation projects. Most conservatives, including the powerful group Americans for Prosperity Colorado, think voter approval should be sought before any new costs are placed on motorists and question the legality of the fee structure.
“It is unconscionable that our lawmakers could even think of moving forward with all the negative feedback they have received with only weeks left in the session to spare,” AFP Colorado State Director Jesse Mallory said in a written statement. “Coloradans, their families, and their businesses cannot possibly shoulder another financial burden after the pandemic. If our lawmakers can’t carry out the duties of their position and hold themselves accountable to voters, then we will — plain and simple.”
Mallory’s group plans to cosponsor a 2022 ballot measure with Colorado Rising State Action, another conservative group, to give voters the option to reduce the gasoline tax in response to the Legislature’s fee plan.
Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, said during a Colorado Sun forum on transportation funding recently that enacting fees would be “incredibly dangerous to our economy and to the well-being of people in Colorado.”
Scott said his party would instead like to see a quarter of the roughly $4 billion Colorado is receiving from the latest coronavirus relief package used for transportation. “We could solve every fiscal problem — from K-12, to higher ed, to roads and bridges — with this money if we don’t get distracted.”
But Priola and Suthers rejected their fellow conservatives’ argument. Priola said he thinks Senate Bill 260 spreads the burden around fairly, and Suthers — who is also Colorado’s former attorney general — said he is confident the fees are legal and will hold up in court.
The governor said support from people like Priola and Suthers proves that the policy strikes the right balance.
“It’s rare to see people of so many different perspectives coming together around something that we need to do,” Polis said. “Most importantly, this bill is for you. It’s to finally fix our damn roads.”
Parts of the bill were first unveiled to reporters in March, but several changes have been made since then. Those alterations include:
Gasoline and diesel fuel fees would start lower — at 2 cents per gallon starting in July 2022 — and increase 1 cent every year up to 8 cents
● The delivery fee was initially set at 25 cents, but it has been hiked to 27 cents
● The additional fee on top of the existing $50 charge for electric vehicle owners would be increased by a range of $55 to $159 instead of by a range of $60.19 to $153.20
● The total general fund contribution would rise to $1.5 billion from $1.2 billion
● The total dollars in the plan increases to $5.3 billion from $5 billion
● $2.5 million would be set aside for Front Range rail, up from no allocation in earlier versions of the measure
Some elements did not change between the earlier version and the one introduced on May 4. That includes plans to charge a new, fee of 30 cents per trip on Uber and Lyft rides starting in 2022 and eventually increasing it based on the federal Consumer Price Index. The fee would be cut in half for people carpooling in a rideshare, or riding in an electric vehicle.
Republicans and Democrats have been battling over how to fund transportation projects in Colorado for years. Voters in recent years have rejected ballot questions to raise taxes, bond and retain excess tax revenue to pay for infrastructure.
The money generated by the new fees would go toward a myriad of projects and not just expanding existing roadways.
“This will help us reach our climate goals through electrifications and also by investing in multi-modal transportation,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and prime sponsor of the transportation-funding bill.
House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who is also a prime sponsor of the bill, said Colorado is losing its competitive edge because of its transportation-funding deficit.
“We have a transportation crisis in Colorado,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Colorado Sun staff writer Lucy Haggard contributed to this report.
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. Used by permission. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com.
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