Measure seeks to extend transportation financing

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Colorado voters could be asked to extend a transportation financing program to fund $3.5 billion in projects across the state, including two major projects in Mesa County.

If enacted by the State Legislature, Senate Bill 272 would authorize a November ballot initiative asking voters to extend the Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes (TRANs) bonding program.

When it was first launched in 1999, the program raised $1.7 billion in financing for transportation projects. If approved  by voters, the initiation would authorize the Colorado Department of Transportation to issue an additional $3.5 billion in TRANs with a maximum repayment cost of $5.5 billion over 20 years.

The financing would pay for 60 projects statewide, including two in Mesa County — the 29 Road overpass and a widening of the Interstate 70 Business Loop totaling $87.5 million.

State Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Republican from Hot Sulphur Springs, is sponsoring SB 272. State Rep. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, is listed as House co-sponsor.

The measure was referred to the Senate Transportation Committee, where it passed on a party line vote.

Backers say the timing is right to refinance bonds to take advantage of low interest rates. Baumgardner said the 4 percent interest rate the state would pay is lower than the 5 percent inflation that’s been forecast for construction costs if the projects are completed later.

In addition, Baumgardner and other proponents said CDOT faces at a minimum  an eight-year gap in transportation expansion funding and has no other plans for funding these projects given what’s seen  as voter reluctance to approve new taxes or tax increases.

SB 272 faces opposition from Democrats, though, including State Sen. Nancy Todd, a Democrat from Aurora and member of the Senate Transportation Committee and Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards. They said they’d prefer a permanent increase in the gasoline tax or another revenue stream to fund highway projects.

CDOT officials also have opposed the plan on the grounds the $170 million a year currently going to cover the original TRANs payments could, once the bonds are paid off in 2017, be redirected for operations and maintenance, which they fear will suffer if the bonds are renewed.

However, supporters point to a provision in SB 272 that would guarantee five years’ worth of so-called 228 transfers named for the 2009 Senate bill that established yearly transfers of more than $200 million from the general fund into state highway funds for asset management purposes.

Recognizing that constitutional limits imposed under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights could reduce or eliminate those transfers, the bill incorporates wording from an earlier house bill introduced by State Rep. Brian Delgrosso, a Republican from Loveland who serves as House minority leader. That wording would guarantee the full five years of those transfers, totaling $1 billion. Backers say that will serve to adequately backfill the department’s operations and maintenance budget.

The original 1999 TRANs bonding initiated under then-Colorado Gov. Bill Owens funded 25 projects, most notably the so-called T-REX I-25 widening project in the Denver metro area.

The current project list includes 60 projects across the state and also includes $622 million in I-70 improvements all along the corridor and $200 million in transit projects.