The Springs’ state roads have big problems — and there’s not enough money to fix them 


click to enlarge Locally maintained roads are doing OK, but state roads could use some work. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com
  • Locally maintained roads are doing OK, but state roads could use some work.

At his Sept. 12 State of the City speech, Mayor John Suthers had a lot to brag about, from the economy to major projects to stormwater system and road improvements.

Well, improvements to some roads.

A voter-approved city sales tax known as 2C has brought big changes to city-owned arterials since 2016, and the mayor said he’s hopeful voters will approve a renewal of that tax (at .57 percent — lower than the current .62 percent), in the Nov. 5 election. That funding is earmarked for improvements to residential roads.

And there was another big victory to trumpet. “To say that I am pleased that [Interstate] 25 between Colorado Springs and Castle Rock is finally being expanded would be an understatement,” Suthers said.

Notably, the region also has a sales tax for the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, which pays for a list of high-need local road projects.

But the mayor pointed out that most state roads in the area, from U.S. 24 to Powers Boulevard, aren’t seeing the attention they need. “[W]e must not lose sight of the fact that our state has a multi-billion dollar deficit in needed transportation infrastructure, including state highways, and that will have serious ramifications for the Pikes Peak region if not remedied,” he said. “Keep in mind that Powers Boulevard is a state highway, as is Nevada [Avenue] south to Fort Carson, and Highway 94 east to Schriever Air Force Base. U.S. 24 going both west and east from Colorado Springs must be expanded to meet the growth of our city. So it’s not enough that our local residents are doing their part to fix our local roads and bridges. Several national studies show Colorado state highways are bad and getting worse. The issue is critical.”

The mayor said a “much greater commitment from Congress, the governor and state Legislature” was needed to address the problem.

State transportation officials say the budget to make all necessary fixes, let alone expand and improve roads, just isn’t there. Even in a year when an estimated $660 million surplus will be funneled into state road projects, the future looks grim.

Rocky Scott, Colorado Transportation Commissioner for District 9, which includes Colorado Springs, says that last year he asked the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to compile a list of needed expansions to state highways in El Paso County. The total bill came to about $2.4 billion.

Statewide, Scott says there are around $9 billion in backlogged projects — but those are just the ones that have already been planned. Scott guesses that the true need is likely around $15 billion.
“What terrifies me, to be honest ... I believe we are past the point of no return in El Paso County,” Scott says.

In other words, even if the state could miraculously produce $2.4 billion for El Paso County road projects right now, Scott says, “We couldn’t avoid solid gridlock on Powers Boulevard.”
So how did we get to this point?

Well, think back to November 2018. Remember Propositions 109 and 110? The competing ballot measures aimed to boost the state’s transportation budget. Prop 109 would have allowed the state to borrow $3.5 billion (and pay back up to $5.2 billion with interest over 20 years) for 66 projects. Prop 110 was a .62 percent sales tax that would have raised over $750 million in the first year, allowing the state to bond $6 billion in projects. Both measures soundly failed.

And that was after a legislative session marked by partisan battles over how to best pay for the state’s crumbling and inadequate infrastructure. It was often noted by politicians that no tax increase for road needs polled well, certainly not an increase in the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991.

More fuel-efficient cars have cut into gas tax collections at the pump, and the $.22 a gallon collected isn’t worth as much due to inflation. Meanwhile, Colorado has far more people driving more miles than it did in 1991. All that means that CDOT’s funding gap could grow to $25 billion over the next 25 years.

As Scott says, “It’s not a pretty picture.” And while some argue that the state should redirect money from other priorities, like K-12 education or Medicaid, Scott notes that those are important needs too, and they’ve also seen shortages.

Indeed, while the Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report pinned Colorado as 36th of 50 states for state highways’ cost-effectiveness and road conditions, a recent report found that Colorado teachers make 40 percent less than the average state salary — the biggest gap in the nation. Likewise, The Colorado Sun reports that the state tops the nation for the number of school districts on a four-day school week (often a budgetary measure), with 111 out of 178 districts switching to the shorter week.

Back when Steve Bach was mayor (2011-2015) he was known to complain that Colorado Springs wasn’t getting its fair share of the state transportation budget.

click to enlarge Karen Rowe, CDOT’s Region 2 director. - COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
  • Colorado Department of Transportation
  • Karen Rowe, CDOT’s Region 2 director.
But both Scott and Karen Rowe, CDOT’s director for Region 2, which includes El Paso and 13 other counties, agree that isn’t the case.

“Everywhere you go in the state there are people who say, ‘We’re not getting our fair share,’” Scott says. “And the fact is: Nobody is getting enough. And when there are stresses in your own area you think, ‘Well I’m not getting enough.’ The truth is the pie is much too small.”

Rowe says that to CDOT, political barriers aren’t that important: Roads are roads. The truth, she says, is that we all rely on even those rural stretches of highway because they carry the truck traffic that brings Coloradans all those Amazon orders — along with groceries and other goods.

Rowe explains that the state generally allots $750 million to $800 million per year for road maintenance statewide, and around another $100 million for bridge safety projects. That money is allocated based on many factors, including number of accidents, road type, lane miles, truck traffic and population.

There’s usually somewhere around $50 million for other projects, like road expansions, statewide. Sometimes, like this year, there’s extra money — and there are plenty of shovel-ready road projects, which have been through design and environmental assessments, to choose from. (Locally, that includes two projects on Powers Boulevard along with projects on Interstate 25, U.S. 24 West and U.S. 24 East.)

So how’s that money doled out? Generally, there is a governmental group — for our region it’s the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments — that makes recommendations to the Transportation Commission, which has 11 members, including Scott, who are appointed by the governor.

The commission then picks the projects. (The projects to be paid for by this year’s surplus haven’t been finalized yet.)

Asked what the biggest priorities are for the Springs, Scott quips, “It depends on what part of town you live in.”

U.S. 24, Powers Boulevard and I-25 all come to mind, he says. In each case, congestion is slowing emergency vehicles, stunting economic growth and impacting quality of life.

But Scott says it’s important to realize that the suffering isn’t confined to fast-growing Colorado Springs. It’s everywhere. He recalls that he was recently driving Interstate 76 in Denver. “It’s like a third world country,” he says.

And Rowe adds that often the slight differences in funding for regions isn’t enough to make an impact. A loss of $5 million in project money, for instance, isn’t make-or-break for a major Powers Boulevard interchange.

“I need the big bucks to get the big projects done,” she says.

Rowe says that if it feels like the state road projects that do get done could be better — it’s because they often could be.

Take the current project on U.S. 24 West — repaving badly potholed asphalt, bridge repairs and the extension of a turn lane at the 21st Street intersection. Wouldn’t that intersection be better with freeway-style ramps? For that matter, wouldn’t the highway’s intersections with Eighth Street and 31st Street also benefit from ramps?

In a word, yes. Rowe says that studies have shown that type of interchange would be ideal, but the cost far exceeds the budget. CDOT never thought that newer intersection at Eighth Street, U.S. 24 and I-25 was the very best choice. But it was the very best choice within the budget.

Consider, she says, that her 14-county region might get $15 million in a year for all major road projects. A freeway-style interchange at U.S. 24 and 21st Street would cost about $20 million. Improving the existing intersection, however, costs around $2 million.

And there are so many other projects. An intersection at Research Parkway and Powers Boulevard needs to be rebuilt. Cost? Roughly $40 million. A section of Interstate 25 running south from South Academy Boulevard needs to be repaved. Cost? About $60 million. The state is looking for a federal grant to match $35 million in funding for that.

With little money to go around, the state Transportation Commission often looks to fund projects that stretch its dollars. That generally means that communities need to pony up local matches that often range from 10 to 25 percent of project costs, or use public-private partnerships (usually toll roads). In some cases, like the Powers Boulevard extension from Voyager Parkway to I-25, the whole tab is privately paid.

Colorado Springs Director of Public Works Travis Easton explains that the Powers extension, which will be bid out in the coming weeks, will cost a special district around $60 million, to be paid for with tax-increment financing. Easton says, “That’s what it’s going to take to get a lot of these projects done.”

In fact, Rowe says that’s nothing unusual: In Colorado, developers are generally expected to pay for the road extensions a new development requires. She says other recent examples exist in Castle Rock, Eagle and Glenwood Springs.

And more and more communities are willing to fork over the cash to see their state roads improved. Denver and Douglas counties, for instance, gave tens of millions to recent road projects, Rowe says, and El Paso County contributed to the current expansion of I-25 between Monument and Castle Rock. Pueblo hasn’t had the money for a match in recent years, but was so desperate to see some of its projects completed that it agreed to take over several state roads in lieu of a match.

Those large matches — which aren’t always required but certainly help prioritize a project — can be tough for cities to come up with when already struggling with their own infrastructure woes. And while funding shortages persist, Easton notes, the Springs’ state roads continue to be choked with traffic.

“Those roads will need to be addressed,” he says, “and arguably need to be addressed right now.”

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