By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
A bill to raise $265 million a year for road and bridge improvements won House approval in a close vote that split along partisan lines with the exception of four Democrats who joined the Republicans.
Senate Bill 108, known as FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation & Economic Recovery), was approved, 34-31, on final reading.
Democrats who joined the solid Republican opposition were House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, of Louisville, and Reps. John Soper, of Thornton, Dennis Apuan, of Colorado Springs, and Wes McKinley, of Walsh.
Pending Senate approval of amendments, the bill will be forwarded to Gov. Bill Ritter to be signed into law. Swift passage through the Senate should speed FASTER’s timetable, helping the governor and Democratic legislators make good on the promise to create several thousand jobs in road and bridge mainten ance and construction by June.
“This bill solves two important problems at this time: Jobs and safety,” said Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne.
Rice said the bill isn’t perfect, but it’s the quickest way to create jobs, designate a source of funding that can’t be diverted to other state programs, improve state roads that have been neglected for nearly two decades and repair 126 bridges that have been deemed structurally
Republican and Democratic legislators agreed that transportation infrastructure is a high priority. Republicans, however, have been ferocious opponents of leveraging fees on citizens and businesses to fund the projects.
“Why are we doing this to the citizens of Colorado, now?” asked Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. “They’re having difficulty in paying their mortgage. They’re worried about keeping their jobs. They’re having trouble making ends meet.”
Gardner said the bill was supposed to have been a bipartisan effort, but the Democratic leadership ignored Republican concerns.
“We’re committed to transportation, but we’re more committed to Colorado’s working families,” said Gardner.
House Minority Leader Mike May asserted that the FASTER bill started as a transportation bill and was transformed into a “fee bill.”
“This may be the first time that I vote against a transportation bill,” May said.
Worse, he said, are amendments that allow at least $5 million from the roads and bridges fund to go toward developing new transit systems.
The Democrats counter that the money will help communities pay for mass transit systems.
May, however, argued that it also could be used to prop up Denver’s overbudget FasTracks system.
“The cookie jar is already being raided — funds are already being siphoned off to develop mass transit,” complained May, adding that such amendments belie Rice’s assurances that the fund would be dedicated solely to highway and bridge projects.
May and others said they plan to ask state Attorney General John Suthers for an opinion on the constitutionality of using enterprise money — which is legally designated for use on roads and bridges — for projects outside that scope. Enterprises are nonprofit entities that dedicate derived funding specifically to the functions of the enterprise.
Others view the fees as long overdue.
“Colorado’s tax burden is 46th of states in the nation,” said Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora. “This bill is an economic development drive. I see good jobs on the horizon.”
The bill will create two enterprise funds — one for highway upgrades and the other for repair or construction of designated bridges. The enterprises will be funded by fees to generate sources of revenue to obtain and repay loans such as bonds and certificates of participation.
The bill will implement a $2-per-day fee on vehicle rentals and annual surcharges to vehicle registrations, and it will allow local transportation districts to assess tolls on new and existing roads and bridges.
Opponents of the bill gained one concession — the vehicle registration surcharges will be increased gradually over a period of three years. The combined highway and bridge safety surcharges, which are based on vehicle weight, will add $32 to most car registrations in 2009, and climb to $41 in 2012.
The highway enterprise will receive funds from road safety surcharges on vehicle registrations that range from $16 for motorcycles to $39 for large trucks.
The bridge enterprise’s surcharges on annual vehicle registrations will range from $13 for motorcycles to $32 for large trucks.
“It’s much too steep a cost to impose on Colorado’s hardworking families,” said Assistant House Minority Leader David Balmer, of Centennial.
The average two-car family will be “taxed” $82 a year, said Balmer, adding that the money could fill two auto tanks with gas, provide a week of school lunches for two children or buy 23 gallons of milk.
More than 120 amendments were debated, and most were defeated. One of the few successful amendments exempts antique cars — those manufactured before 1943 — from the car registration surcharges.
Car rental fee
May waged verbal warfare against the proposed $2-per-day rental-car fee, saying it would discriminate against the car-rental business, “double tax” Coloradans who use about 60 percent of car rentals and also will pay surcharges on the cars they own, and discourage tourists and conventioneers from coming to Colorado.
“How do rented cars destruct roads more than privately owned cars?” asked May, who contrasted the potential annual $730-per-rental-car revenue to the average Coloradan’s car registration surcharge
Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said the car rental fee will be a negative factor when organizations compare Colorado to other states as the destination for business conferences and conventions.
“We want to attract tourists and visitors to our cities and mountain communities,” said Lambert.
“Denver is ranked 11th for the worst taxes and fees in the country,” said Balmer, adding that the car rental fees will discourage tourism.
“I’ve looked at the data, and we’re midpoint for tourism,” countered Rice. “We’re losing our market share of tourism to Utah, and it’s because of our transportation” (infrastructure).
One problem, Rice said, is the lack of speedy transportation from Denver to the mountain resorts.
The bill grants the option for local governments to implement tolls on new and existing roads. However, it would require unanimous consent of all governing jurisdictions affected by the designated toll area.
“It’s the most inequitable way to gain revenue,” declared Rep. Ed Casso, D-Thornton, who proposed — but lost — an amendment to remove tolling from the bill.
“It amounts to double taxation,” said Casso, who questioned the constitutionality of citizens being “taxed” for roads that they already paid for in past years and expressed concern that toll roads would have negative impact on small communities.
“These fees could increase unabated without any oversight by the General Assembly,” said Casso. “Local jurisdictions would serve to please themselves.”
“They’ll toll every road in my district — they’re all state highways,” said Democrat Soper, whose Thornton district includes Peña Boulevard. He said he fears the road, which provides the only access to Denver International Airport, will become a toll road.
“In my district, the tolling allowed in this bill is a no starter. They don’t want anymore fees out there,” said Soper.
Soper added that the option of tolling will be extremely enticing to local governments who need to offset budget losses in an economic recession.
He also predicted that motorists will drive on less-traveled roads to bypass the tolling areas, creating a hardship on smaller communities because of traffic congestion, smog and road damage.
“The fear that every single road will become a toll road is unfounded,” declared Rice.
In a lighter moment after nearly four hours of debate, May went to the well to argue against the $2-per-day car-rental fee and made a comment about his overdue evening meal.
“I’ll be brief, because it’s time to feed me. Slimfast? That’s not on my diet,” said May when someone offered him the canned liquid diet meal. “I’m used to being a short, fat Irish guy.”