n Nov. 6, Colorado voters will have the dubious privilege of voting on two dueling transit initiatives. Both purport to solve our state’s decades-long transportation underfunding crisis. One is a serious and credible effort to do just that, while the other is a cynical, politically motivated attempt to force the legislature to realign state spending priorities.
The latter, titled “Fix Our Damn Roads” is the brainchild of gonzo anti-tax advocate Jon Caldara, who has long headed the libertarian think tank Independence Institute in Golden. It calls for the state to issue $3.5 billion in transportation bonds and requires the legislature to come up with more than $5 billion from the general fund during the next two decades to service and repay the debt. Caldara argues that diverting $250 million annually from the state’s $29 billion annual budget shouldn’t be difficult, citing less-than-essential allocations for economic development and film production support. He’s right, until our overheated economy weakens and the legislature is forced to chop spending on education and/or Medicaid.
Such cuts would actually please Caldara and the Independence Institute, but a majority of voters might disagree. Hence this backdoor solution, which could force the legislature to do Caldara’s will.
That might not dismay voters if our damned roads are actually fixed, but $3.5 billion probably won’t cut it. The Colorado Department of Transportation has estimated the state’s unfunded road and highway needs at $9 billion in the next 10 years, and their figures may be conservative. As population grows and vehicle numbers soar, annual maintenance and construction needs increase proportionately. “Fix Our Damn Roads” may be a fake solution to a real problem, one that will just delay the day of reckoning.
A competing initiative crafted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and other business interests is comprehensive, financially sound and (true to its Denver origins!) expensive. “Let’s Go, Colorado” would fund $20 billion in transportation funding with a 0.62 percent sales tax during the next 20 years, raising the state sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent. CDOT would get 45 percent, cities and counties would get 40 percent and the remaining 15 percent would go to transit and other multi-modal projects.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers doesn’t much like “Let’s Go, Colorado.” In his view, it unfairly burdens Colorado Springs taxpayers, who in 2016 voted to fix their own damned roads via a Suthers-crafted 0.62 percent local sales tax. The new measure would increase the aggregate sales tax bite on city residents from a lofty 8.25 percent to an astronomical 8.87 percent.
So how should we vote — for one, for both or for neither? As one who dreads unfunded state debt, dislikes tax increases and is dismayed by our slowly collapsing transportation network, I dunno — but let’s look at how we got here.
From 1956 to 1992, Colorado’s highway transportation system was first rate. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 funded the replacement of two-lane blacktop state highways with Interstate 25 and I-70, while prudent state and local funding maintained and expanded other roads. It was an amazing era, one that Colorado voters decisively ended by voting for the Douglas Bruce-authored Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment to the state constitution in 1992.
TABOR has made it far more difficult for the state to raise taxes, to retain tax dollars, to keep up with inflation or recover from recession-caused revenue shortfalls. For example, the 22-cent per gallon state gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1992, although it’s now equivalent to about 10 cents in 1992 dollars. Taxes are unpopular sui generis, and voters (particularly in Colorado Springs) tend to reject new taxes and tax increases.
Just as the overwhelming support of Colorado Springs voters put TABOR over the top in 1992, our fair city will likely determine the fate of 2018’s battling transportation initiatives. My guess is that we’ll reject both, torpedoing “Let’s Go, Colorado” by a two-to-one margin and swatting away Caldara’s damn roads by 55-45.
And if we kill both, so be it. Doing so might persuade the Denver initiative writers to include us in the conversation next time, and maybe figure out a more equitable way to fund our transportation system. The ideal initiative would include user fees, fuel taxes, sales taxes and — wait a minute! Thanks to Colorado’s single-subject rule governing initiatives, such a thoughtful and comprehensive measure would be illegal.
So never mind — just take your time and drive slowly.
This column previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.