Dems push FASTER through

SB 108 wins approval in transport committee

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Senate Bill 108, the FASTER bill, squeaked through the House Transportation and Energy Committee late Tuesday night after more than five hours of scrutiny from Republican committee members and pro-and-con testimony from 51 witnesses.

FASTER (an acronym for Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery) slipped through the committee on a 7-5 straight party line vote on Feb. 17.

The bill, being crafted with help from Gov. Bill Ritter’s office, aims to generate more than $250 million annually from increased vehicle registration fees to create jobs improving roads and bridges and service a debt load of $500 million. The average impact on Colorado drivers will be $41 a year, FASTER supporters said.

“The picture is quite dire. Many, many people are suffering out there,” said Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, who, with Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, sponsored SB 108.

“This is not a perfect solution — it’s an important part of the solution,” said Rice, who urged swift passage of the bill in the Legislature.

“We need this bill for two reasons: jobs and safety,” said Rice.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, however, saw plenty of reasons for caution and issued a statement calling for a complete overhaul of the bill.

“We are well beyond the time for a simple tune-up. We cannot support this massive fee increase during an economic downturn,” said May, who stood in the back of the Old Courthouse Chamber to observe the committee hearing.

“The time for a bipartisan bill is running out,” said committee member Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, repeatedly jabbing his ballpoint pen on the desk.

McNulty said the bill has strayed way off course since original discussions between Democratic and Republican legislative leaders.

More than half the witnesses testified that the bill’s funding sources — including a $2 car-rental fee, possible road tolls and vehicle registration fees — will increase financial burdens on businesses, causing more layoffs and business closures.

The bill proposes increases in annual vehicle-registration fees ranging from $29 for a small car to $71 for a large truck.

“I am passionately against this bill,” said George Metcalf, a used car dealer in Westminster. “When you take $250 million out of the economy a year… with the intention of creating jobs, you’re going to take away more jobs than you create.”

Metcalf said the bill will shift money for jobs from small businesses to big companies that will prosper. He also believes the increased financial burden will hurt disabled and retired people living on fixed incomes, laborers who earn low wages and the unemployed.

“I have great compassion for these people, who are hard-working people who are the backbone citizens of our state,” said Metcalf.

“We are in the middle of a recession — a drastic recession,” said Metcalf. “I don’t think this legislation passes the stink test.”

A manager from Alamo Car Rental Company opposed the $2-a-day fee on car rentals. She said the company had eliminated more than 10,000 jobs across the country, and the “tax” will hurt business and cause more layoffs.

“I’m going to caution you,” interrupted committee chair Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo. “You called this a tax — it is a fee.”

Walker Sears, who manages a car rental agency in Englewood, said that the fee is unfair to his customers, most of whom rent cars while their own cars are being repaired — usually because of an accident.

“The fee would be twice as high if Republicans had their way — they wanted a $4-a-day fee on car rentals,” Rice whispered to The Colorado Statesman.

Nine members of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association voiced objections to the proposal to place tolls on bridges and highways. They cited an AAA survey of 525,000 motorists that indicated 72 percent oppose tolls.

Greg Fulton, chairman of CMA, said that soaring fuel costs last year resulted in losses in trucking revenue and higher prices for goods and products in the stores. He said the trucking industry has no means to make up the expense tolls will add to those losses.

Some Republican committee members also had objected to the use of tolls.

Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, said the designation of toll areas might require feasibility and economic-impact studies, and property rights would have to be protected.

Rice responded by saying the program is optional.

“It doesn’t say, ‘Thou shall toll and here’s how we’re going to do it,’” he asserted.

“This bill is the first step to revitalizing the economy,” said Joe Blake, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. He said the bill creates a blueprint for using tolls as a finance option for new or existing roads without a predetermined outcome.

The decision to create a toll road would be made by all affected communities — not the state, said Blake, who was appointed by Ritter to serve on the Blue Ribbon Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel. The panel reported on bridges and roads in need of repair and made funding recommendations.

Democrats are optimistic the current bill will pass in the House. Republicans would prefer to go back to the drawing board, but will offer a slew of amendments.

Backers are ramping up their efforts on several fronts.

For example, Rice told the committee that the bill will “save 5,000 to 8,000 jobs” — a change from the previous forecast that it will “create 4,000 jobs.”

Proponents also are campaigning furiously through an e-mail campaign and a new Web site, FASTER.com, which reports that, according to studies by the Colorado Contractors Association, FASTER’s annual $250 million will produce 10,000 jobs directly and another possible 30,000 jobs indirectly.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com