Colorado lawmakers strike $3 billion deal on transportation funding


DENVER | After years of explosive growth and legislative inaction combined to choke Colorado’s roads with congestion, top state lawmakers on Monday announced a deal to spend upwards of $3 billion on transportation projects over the next 20 years.

If approved, the legislative breakthrough would represent the largest transportation funding measure in the state’s history, but still well short of what Democrats and Republicans say is needed to address the state’s traffic woes. They differ on where the funding should come from.

The proposal would ask voters in 2019 to approve $2.34 billion in bonds, and commits the state to spending up to $3.25 billion to repay the borrowing costs. Overall, the deal would commit the state to spend $645 million over the next two years on transportation projects, then an additional $1 billion over the next 20 years.

The remainder of the money needed would come by redirecting funding that lawmakers had secured in last year’s legislative session.

Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran announced the deal after a months-long stalemate — two days before the 2018 legislative session ends.

Political and business leaders have been trying for more than a decade to boost funding to transportation, a push that reached a critical mass in the last two years. Like most states, Colorado is reliant on the gas tax to pay for state highway needs.

But while 26 states have increased fuel taxes in the last five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Colorado’s hasn’t budged from 22-cents a gallon since 1991. Policymakers say that’s due in large part to the state’s strict constitutional limits on spending, which require voter approval for any tax hikes.

While the gas tax has lost value to inflation and fuel efficiency, the state’s needs have only grown. Colorado has added 800,000 people since 2007 — a 14 percent increase in population. And state demographers expect it to add another 2.2 million by 2040.

The deal struck Monday represents far less than the $5 billion Republicans had sought to spend on borrowing. House Democrats argued that committing that much to transportation bonds would require cuts to education during the next economic downturn.

Most of the money would be earmarked for state highway projects, with 15 percent going to alternate forms of transportation, such as mass transit or bike lanes.

Both Grantham and Duran said they were pleased with the compromise, which still has to pass both chambers by Wednesday to become law.

“It shows that this is a priority,” said Grantham, a Canon City lawmaker.

Both sides also emphasized that more money is needed. The state faces $9 billion in transportation needs over the next decade.

“It’s not enough, and that’s why we need to also see a ballot initiative pass,” said Duran, of Denver.

Business groups have been considering sending voters a ballot measure in November to raise taxes for roads, which Democrats support.

The Independence Institute, a conservative group, is pushing a competing measure of its own to boost transportation funding within the existing budget.

Not everyone was sold on the compromise. When the floor debate began Monday evening, House Republicans offered an amendment to restore the larger bonding proposal that the Senate had initially sought. It was rejected along party lines.

“Frankly, we are late to the party. We should’ve addressed this big commitment years ago,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from the suburban town of Monument. “Every day we delay, the problem gets worse, the roads depreciate, the cost of building them goes up, the cost of financing goes through the roof.”