By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Surrounded by Democratic lawmakers, construction workers and a handful of business and civic leaders at the Capitol Wednesday, Gov. Bill Ritter continued to push for a solution to Colorado’s transportation woes.
At a colorful press conference, Ritter promoted his omnibus transportation plan, dubbed FASTER, an acronym for Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation & Economic Recovery. Despite calling for a bipartisan solution, Republican lawmakers were noticeably absent.
Gov. Bill Ritter waits to speak at the FASTER press conference while Colorado Department of Transportation workers stand behind him.
The governor again stressed the need to fix the state’s transportation infrastructure, calling for an increase in vehicle registration fees to create an additional $250 million annually to service the debt load of $500 million in certificates of participation to be used for road and bridge repairs. The 71-page plan also allows the state to investigate the use of public-private partnerships and new toll roads and provides funding for a study to examine taxing drivers on a per-mile-driven basis.
The additional $250 million in registration fees would equate to nearly $41 per driver in additional fees.
“I believe this is no longer really appropriately called a quiet crisis,” Ritter said of the state’s deteriorating roads. “We have a significant downturn in transportation funding and at the same time very serious concerns (about) the safety of roads and bridges. At a minimum, we have a need to maintain those roads and bridges with a (new) revenue stream differently than we do today.”
Despite repeated calls for a bipartisan solution, Ritter failed to recruit Republican lawmakers to stand behind him during the press conference — usually a strong sign of bipartisan support. After the press conference, Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he was disappointed that the FASTER bill didn’t include bipartisan solutions.
Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce president
and CEO Joe Blake speaks during the FASTER press conference while Gov. Bill Ritter listens on.
“We haven’t foreclosed our willingness to talk (about the bill), but nothing that you see in this 71-page piece of legislation includes conversations that we had this summer,” McNulty said. “We’re right where we were six months ago, and if we’re going to have a bipartisan bill, it has to have bipartisan components in it.”
McNulty said Republicans are not flatly against new fees, but said the Legislature should do more to find existing revenue to fund transportation before asking residents to pay more. When asked where he might cut existing money from a largely hamstrung state budget, McNulty gave a few suggestions.
“The Governor’s Energy Office (is one place), and then we could roll into the expanded entitlement programs — welfare programs — that have been expanded in the last two years,” McNulty said. “There are things that we can do to roll back government and instead use the money to fund transportation priorities.”
Statehouse Republican leadership also has suggested leveraging state buildings in a similar fashion as the Legislature did last year to construct new higher education and correctional facilities in order to fund road repair.
Many in the business community came out in support of the FASTER bill on Wednesday, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Joe Blake, president and CEO of the Chamber, said transportation infrastructure is critical to commerce and called the bill a bridge to a workable solution.
Democratic Sen. Dan Gibbs, the senate sponsor of FASTER, speaks at a press conference on Wednesday promoting the bill.
“The thing that you cannot overlook in the midst of all of these discussions… is the prospect that funding for transportation in the state is getting increasingly more difficult to do,” Blake said. “Consider the fact that in the current budget forecast, the state will lose $480 million in Senate Bill 001 funding (alone). This (bill) is not just an economic stimulus; this is a mandate.
“Having this bill move forward now gives us an opportunity to make sure we have something passed and to move forward before the session ends. From the business community’s point of view, it is very important that we can move that forward,” he continued.
Ritter said the state has not identified new sections of roadway that could be targeted for new tolls. He added that the study to examine a vehicle-miles-traveled fee structure is smart because it offers a way to assess fees on Colorado drivers proportionate to their use of the road, not based on the weights of the vehicles they drive.
Republicans — who have opposed the vehicle-miles-traveled study from its onset — disagreed, calling it a new tax.
“I think it’s a horrible idea and is an unfair and unnecessary tax on rural Colorado, a tax on suburban families and an expensive effort at social planning,” McNulty said. “It’s unproven technology. Nowhere where this has been tried has it been successful. We can’t spend $3 million to $5 million on a study that we could be spending on new bridges and roads.”
Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, and Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, are sponsors of the FASTER bill, introduced this week.