FASTER brightens Ritter’s budget gloom

By Leslie Jorgensen

Gov. Bill Ritter showcased a bright spot in the state’s bleak budget forecast on Monday when he proposed a 6 percent increase in transportation funding for fiscal year 2010-’11, which begins in July.

Ritter said that the $1.03 billion request for the Colorado Department of Transportation is feasible because of the Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery (FASTER), which is expected to generate $160.6 million this year for repair and safety work on bridges and roads.

“FASTER will help protect our roads and bridges from uncontrollable decline so that parents can safely take their kids to school, so that businesses can safely transport goods and services, and so that tourists can safely visit our great state,” said Ritter.

Joining Ritter at the Monday media conference were a number of Democratic lawmakers and FASTER fans, including House Speaker Terrance Carroll, of Denver; Senate President Brandon Shaffer, of Longmont; Sens. Rollie Heath, of Boulder, and Suzanne Williams, of Aurora, and Rep. Buffie McFadyen, of Pueblo, as well as several civic leaders and members of Ritter’s Blue Ribbon Transportation Commission.

“This is first and foremost about public safety,” said Ritter of FASTER, which he signed into law last March to fund the repair of 128 structurally deficient bridges and the improvement of nearly half of the state’s roads.

The governor noted that FASTER is a more stable funding source than gasoline taxes, which were last raised in 1991 to 22 cents per gallon. He said that the fuel tax is no longer a reliable fee to compensate for vehicle impact on Colorado highways because owners of fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles buy less gas, and those who own electrically powered vehicles don’t purchase any.

FASTER is funded largely by additional vehicle registration fees that will gradually increase from an average of $32 per vehicle per year to $41 over the next three years.

“For a lot of people, that’s buying an extra tank of gas,” said Ritter of the annual fee.

The new fees, which went into effect on June 1, ignited anger among some vehicle owners, particularly those who were slapped with late fees that ranged from $10 to $100, the cap on penalties.

Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson hired security guards to protect the motor vehicle department employees charged with delivering the bad news. Other counties also beefed up security during the summer months, just in case anger over the new fees boiled over into violence. The precautions, however, proved unnecessary. The state offices remained peaceful, if not calm.

Among the most outraged were owners of rarely used recreational vehicles and trailers. Ritter said the Legislature probably will amend FASTER in the 2010 session to reduce late fees assessed for non-motorized equipment such as trailers.

Carroll acknowledged that the FASTER bill didn’t pass peacefully through the General Assembly as mostly Republican lawmakers offered impassioned resistance.

Some GOP leaders view FASTER as leverage to unseat Democrats running for re-election to any state office in 2010, from the state House and Senate to the governorship.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, former 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes all have denounced FASTER as an unfair burden on citizens who are struggling during this economic recession.

Penry wants to repeal it. McInnis hopes to phase out the fees, but he notes that the success of that effort is likely to hinge on electing more Republicans in 2010 to offset the current majorities held by Democrats in both the state House and Senate.

“The Ritter-Democratic vehicle fee tax increase will be one of the two or three most important issues next year,” declared Colorado Republican Party Chair Dick Wadhams.

“The public has rejected this regressive, unfair, irresponsible tax increase as have virtually all Republican legislators and candidates,” he said.

“This tax increase reveals the hypocrisy of Ritter and his Democratic legislators as it (most) adversely affects Colorado taxpayers who can least afford to pay it,” asserted Wadhams.

Carroll acknowledged that FASTER already has become a wedge issue between some Democrats and Republicans.

“Some people decided they would take potshots at us over FASTER,” acknowledged Carroll. “But, I’ll take the potshots any day rather than have one more Colorado family have their car destroyed by a pothole in a road that we couldn’t repair.”

“We can handle the heat if that means our families get safer bridges, workers get jobs and businesses get a better way to move goods and products,” the House speaker declared. “After decades of all talk and little action, we now have real momentum because FASTER means that we have shovels in the ground and an economic hot in the arm when we really need it most.”

Tony Milo, executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, lauded FASTER for creating jobs in the construction industry, which has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

“While the economy is in a recession, the construction industry is clearly in a depression,” declared Milo. “The next time you pay your vehicle registration fees, know that you’re helping save a neighbor’s job… you’re helping people feed their families.”

The proposed transportation budget is a small part of the Ritter’s proposed state budget, which also was due Monday. The state budget went to the General Assembly’s Joint Budget Committee later in the week.

JBC member Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said that he was not certain whether the governor’s proposed CDOT budget is realistic. The JBC, said Lambert, will have to review it within the context of Ritter’s entire state budget proposal.

“I wonder if this could be totally serious or simply a plan to ceremoniously put something on the table that would be quietly withdrawn later — off camera, due to a lack of funds,” Lambert speculated.

Lambert said the JBC won’t know until after next week’s review of the bigger budget picture whether Ritter’s ray of sunshine for CDOT will cut through the state’s budget cloud cover.