Road to funding: CDOT exec outlines options

Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Voters soon could choose from among several options for increasing transportation funding and, in doing so, also address a multitude of related issues, according to the director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Michael Lewis said during a presentation organized by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Talking to the group by remote conferencing, Lewis discussed possible funding scenarios as well as what he described as a highway system that’s subjected to increasing use from a growing population, but hasn’t been substantially expanded. Colorado also ranks below other states in terms of the condition of pavement and bridges. That’s not to mention the social and economic costs of highway fatalities.

Senate Bill 1, a measure enacted by the Colorado Legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, earmarks a total of $645 million for transportation funding in 2018 and 2019, Lewis said.

Senate bill 1 offers outside interests an opportunity to push for ballot initiatives in November to raise transportation funding. If those initiatives fail, the state would submit a ballot initiative in November 2019 calling for more than $2.3 billion in bonded funding, he said.

Two initiatives have been proposed for the 2018 election.

Initiative 167 would allow the state to increase its bonding authority by $3.5 billion to increase transportation funding, then pay back the principal and interest out of the general fund.

Initiative 153 would increase for two decades the state sales and use tax by 0.62 percent — bringing the tax to 3.52 percent starting Jan. 1, 2019 — to increase revenue for transportation needs. The initiative would allocate 45 percent of the new tax revenue to pay for up to $5 billion in bonds issued for statewide transportation projects. A total of 40 percent of revenue would be allocated to counties, cities and towns to fund local projects. The remaining 15 percent would be allocated to transit projects.

CDOT has identified $6.2 billion worth of projects to complete if funding is available, Lewis said. That includes work in Mesa County to reconstruct the intersection of First Street and Grand Avenue in Grand Junction, rebuild and realign Interstate Highway 70 between Palisade and DeBeque and improve U.S. Highway 6 and Colorado Highway 340.

Colorado faces a challenge in a growing population and increasing highway use, Lewis said. The population grew from 3.1 million in 1991 to 5.4 million in 2015 and is projected to grow to 7.8 million in 2040. Vehicle miles traveled similarly has increased from 27.7 billion in 1991 to 50.5 billion in 2015 and is projected to increase to 72.3 billion in 2040.

While the population of Colorado has swelled 53 percent since 1990, lane miles on highways have increased only
2 percent, he said.

According to statistics for 2016, Colorado ranks 33rd among the states for the condition of its pavement and 13th for the condition of its bridges, Lewis said.

Compared to neighboring Utah, Colorado has a larger population, work force and overall state budget, but nearly the same transportation department budget, he said.

Highways constitute an important contributor to economic vitality in Colorado, Lewis said particularly given the contributions of the skiing and tourism industries to the state.

There’s also economic and social costs involved with another issue related to highways, he said, and that’s safety and the 630 highway fatalities that occurred in 2017 in Colorado.

Answering a question following his presentation about why a sales tax increase has been proposed to fund transportation rather than a gasoline tax hike, Lewis said polls indicate more opposition to higher gas taxes. Moreover, the increasing efficiency of gasoline-fueled vehicles and popularity of electric vehicles means decreased gasoline tax revenues.