Guest Columns

MILO: MONEY RAISED BY RITTER, LEGISLATURE WON'T GO FAR

Thankfully, some chose to lead — FASTER

Coloradans own a conservatively estimated $500 million per year unfunded liability on public bridge, highway, interchange and tunnel infrastructure. That’s a staggering sum in any single year, and the cumulative effect year after year undermines road safety and our state’s economic recovery. That Colorado’s people, families, businesses and leaders continue accumulating a $500 million annual deferred maintenance debt is unsustainable.

That $500 million annual buildup, however, disguises the full magnitude of the “quiet crisis” Coloradans now confront.

If we intend to significantly reduce traffic congestion, establish better connections between regions within
the state, improve local roads and strategically expand transit options, Coloradans need to invest three times that amount — a conservatively estimated $1.5 billion — in new, annually dedicated, inflation-adjusted revenue.

Many federal, state and local leaders in Colorado are overwhelmed by the daily struggle to reconcile massive budget cuts with increasing population and burgeoning demand on public infrastructure systems of every kind (transportation, water, energy and otherwise).

On behalf of the Colorado Contractors Association (CCA), our 400 construction, equipment, goods and service companies, and the more than 30,000 workers CCA members collectively employ, I invite you to join the men and women of the CCA in consciously choosing a path to enhance the quality of life and economic vitality for all Coloradans.

A few months ago, Colorado legislators and Gov. Bill Ritter approved Colorado Senate Bill 09-108 — dubbed the FASTER bill. FASTER creates a weight-based schedule of bridge-safety and road-safety fees and a $2 daily car rental fee. Because more than 80 percent of all vehicles registered in Colorado weigh less than 5,000 pounds, most Coloradans will pay $41 more per vehicle, per year (about $3.42 a month) on their vehicle registration bills.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) projects that, when fully implemented, FASTER will generate approximately $250 million per year to help:

• Save, restore and create Colorado jobs and jumpstart our state economy;

• Accelerate repair and construction of Colorado’s most urgent bridge and road priorities;

• Invest in Colorado’s most urgent transit infrastructure priorities; and

• Reduce Colorado’s $1.5 billion annual transportation infrastructure funding shortfall.

Colorado legislators and Gov. Ritter demonstrated responsible, courageous and necessary leadership in supporting FASTER. They knew voting to approve FASTER’s fee increases would be difficult and unpopular. Nevertheless, they recognized that, without prompt action, the cost to begin addressing Colorado’s infrastructure problems would increase exponentially in future years. Consequently, they made the tough, but necessary, decision to lead.

Colorado’s existing gas tax revenues generate a fraction of the dollars required to maintain — much less expand — Colorado’s network of roads, bridges, interchanges and tunnels.

FASTER makes Colorado’s road and bridges safer and ensures that fewer Colorado workers and their families will face unemployment, home
foreclosure and loss of health-care insurance.

Please consider the following facts, which, I believe, led Gov. Ritter and legislators to approve FASTER.

• Colorado taxpayers today own 128 structurally deficient, functionally obsolete, poorly rated bridges throughout the state — up from only 116 just two years ago. (The I-70 viaduct is one example.)

• Forty percent of our roads are in poor condition, and 20 percent require complete reconstruction.

• Once a road or highway deteriorates to the point where we have to reconstruct it, taxpayers pay literally seven times more then they would have, had the necessary preventive and deferred maintenance been completed in a timely manner.

• Fuel taxes contribute 95 percent of Colorado’s bridge, highway, interchange and tunnel funding.

• Colorado last raised its fuel tax in 1991.

• The federal government last raised its fuel tax in 1993.

• Nineteen years of inflation (see the Colorado Construction Cost Index) has eroded the purchasing power of the state’s fuel tax revenue to the point that Colorado’s fuel tax dollar buys 60 percent less in transportation infrastructure improvements today than that same dollar bought in 1991.

• Colorado’s state demographer projects that the state’s population will increase by 2.6 million people in the next 25 years.

• In 2007, Gov. Ritter appointed a bipartisan, 32-member Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel. I had the good fortune to serve on this panel. For nearly two years, we expended countless professional staff and volunteer hours documenting, evaluating and quantifying the magnitude of Colorado’s transportation infrastructure problem. We reviewed data. We discussed and debated various mitigation measures and funding options. Essentially, we did what we were supposed to do. After months of hard work, we conservatively concluded that Colorado needs an additional $1.5 billion annual transportation infrastructure investment throughout the state.

• The national economic downturn hit Colorado’s construction industry especially hard. Many civil construction companies and their equipment, goods and service suppliers have laid off between 20 percent and 40 percent of their respective workforces in the last 18 to 24 months. (The federal stimulus money is only now beginning to have its intended effect.)

• While estimates vary, Jack Wells, economist for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, project that $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure will yield more than 27,000 jobs.

Given these and other facts, I believe legislators and Gov. Ritter acted reasonably and responsibly in approving the fee increase. Had they failed to approve FASTER, they would have been criticized for doing nothing — and rightly so.

Although FASTER represents an important step in the right direction, it isn’t nearly enough. When fully implemented in three years, the FASTER fee increase will generate about $250 million annually for road and bridge maintenance and transit infrastructure. In inflation-adjusted terms, that equals a mere one-sixth of Colorado’s annual $1.5 billion need.

I hope Coloradans recognize that when we pay FASTER’s new Bridge Safety Fee, Road Safety Fee or $2 daily car rental fee, we are saving a neighbor’s job and taking a modest, but vital, step toward stabilizing Colorado’s deteriorating infrastructure and economy.

Looking beyond FASTER, what’s next? What do Coloradans believe are the wisest ways to save, restore and create jobs, make our roads safer and enhance our collective quality of life?

The question is neither abstract nor rhetorical. One of the most structurally deficient bridges in the state is the I-70 viaduct. CDOT estimates the structure carries between 119,000 and 152,000 vehicles each day. CDOT estimates that replacing the I-70 viaduct alone will cost $800 million to $1.2 billion — or more.

How will we fund it? How do we intend to pay for the CDOT services on which so many rely — and which so many take for granted? Mountain pass snow removal, rock fall mitigation, right-of-way weed mowing and litter cleanup, highway resurfacing and road de-icing and sanding are but a few of the public services CDOT provides.

In the coming months, I invite all Coloradans to engage state and local leaders in a candid, statewide, problem-solving dialogue about — not if — but how we provide the money vital to maintain our public infrastructure, collective quality of life and future.

Even with FASTER, short of substantial new, annually dedicated, inflation-adjusted funding, Colorado’s transportation infrastructure will continue to deteriorate at the rate of at least $500 million per year. Failure to address that deferred maintenance backlog soon will undermine Colorado’s competitive edge in the region and will cost Colorado’s taxpayers, transportation system users and economy exponentially more in future years.

So, the next time you have an opportunity, thank Gov. Ritter, legislators and your local elected officials for their courage and responsible leadership on the FASTER bill.

Then, ask them to look forward and share with you their plans to solve Colorado’s remaining $500 million to $1.5 billion transportation infrastructure annual shortfall.

What’s your proposed $500 million to $1.5 billion transportation infrastructure solution?

Let the problem-solving discussions begin.

Tony Milo is executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association (CCA), which represents approximately 400 civil construction companies and associated equipment, goods and service providers that collectively employ more than 30,000 Coloradans.