A solution for improving Colorado's roads and bridges

Almost every spring, we hear a similar refrain from Denver. As the Colorado Legislature winds down, Republican and Democratic leaders talk about how they don't behave like their counterparts in Congress.

They have obvious political differences, but eventually this state's legislators get things done. Granted, the law requires them to pass a balanced budget every year. But when other legislation rises to sufficient importance, we see compromises and bills co-sponsored by members of both parties.

That's how it works, especially when one side controls the state Senate (Republicans now) and the other reigns in the House (Dems). Otherwise, bills catering only to one party's agenda inevitably die. But the two parties sometimes agree on large-scale proposals, and that's happening now.

Everyone has known the rising need (some say reaching emergency levels) for a monstrous idea to upgrade and modernize the state's roads and bridges and address traffic and other transportation issues. Gov. John Hickenlooper asked in his annual State of the State address for the Legislature to put a substantial idea before voters this year, which he couldn't do himself, and legislators had grappled with it for months.

Then, last week, came the breakthrough. On March 8, Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, and House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, announced the result, called House Bill 1242. It proposes a statewide ballot issue for the November 2017 election, asking voters to raise the state's portion of the sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent, starting in January 2018 and continuing for 20 years.

The increase, along with diverting some other funds, would generate a projected $677 million a year. But not just for fixing and widening highways, and not just for Denver.

Actually, $350 million of that would become annual payments for a $3.5 billion bond package, allowing Colorado to start many projects more quickly. Given that the Colorado Department of Transportation says the state has $9 billion in immediate needs, and available resources don't cover even maintaining all roads and bridges, it's a huge step.

But wait, that's not all. The remaining $327 million (more, if the economy stays strong) each year would be split, with 70 percent (more than $225 million annually) going to local governments for roads and bridges, and the other 30 percent (more than $90 million) to provide matching grants for local projects, including for mass transit.

[pullquote-1] How much might come to the Colorado Springs area? Since El Paso County has about 15 percent of the state's population, we should be kicking and screaming for our share, $35 million or more every year. All for local needs, eliminating the plan to renew our 2C road-funding measure (it expires in 2020), bringing our sales tax back down to about what it is now.

To help sell the concept to voters, HB 1242 also would decrease vehicle registration fees, cuts totaling $75 million a year. Another positive would be an open website sharing how the money is spent at the state and local levels. In other words, no secrets.

The top priority of that bond package would be upgrades and added lanes for Interstate 25, including Monument to Castle Rock plus the remaining unwidened stretch between Denver and Fort Collins, as well as overloaded sections of Interstate 70, especially in the mountains west of Denver.

Something else: This way Colorado doesn't have to wait on President Donald Trump's proposed $1 trillion national infrastructure infusion. Indications are that such a plan likely would require toll roads and bridges to support financing. Tolls are not part of Colorado's new plan.

There is vocal opposition from some conservatives, and the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity has come out against HB 1242. But given that state Senate and House leaders are carrying this, it should have a good chance of moving forward and making the November ballot, so voters can decide. First, though, we should contact our legislators to encourage their support.

As Grantham said in a statement: "There's still a lot of debate, compromise and hard work ahead before we'll have a proposal good enough to pass muster with voters. But I'm optimistic that we'll get there in the end."

What this plan needs is a catchy name, something to energize voters. Something like Colorado's Roads to the Future.

Someone will do better than that, but you get the idea.

This is exactly the kind of cooperative effort we want state lawmakers to achieve. And in Colorado, they do.