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Colorado business leaders propose transportation funding fix

Business leaders pitch $3.5 billion for transportation
Colorado business leaders are proposing a $3.5 billion bond measure to help fund roads and bridges across the state.

A coalition of business leaders Friday announced a proposal to fund transportation projects in the state through a $3.5 billion bond measure.

The Fix Colorado Roads group hopes to establish a steady stream of funding for the state’s crumbling roads and highways without having to ask voters for a tax increase.

The coalition is asking the Colorado Legislature to refer a ballot question to voters in 2016 that would authorize the $3.5 billion bond program.

Bonds are a form of debt, or a loan. For governments, there is a promise to pay the debt back in full. In the case of the Colorado proposal, the state would have 20 years to make good on its promise. Governments often use bonds to raise money for infrastructure.

Voters would have to approve the proposal because Colorado law prohibits government from raising debt without voter approval.

“We simply cannot continue to be stuck in neutral on transportation funding in Colorado,” said David May, president and chief executive of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce, who is assisting with leading efforts. “Our population is growing, our economy is expanding and everyone agrees that quality roads and bridges are the key to prosperity and our world-class quality of life.”

A similar effort was tried at the Legislature last session, which hit a roadblock after concerns were raised by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Officials worried that the proposal would siphon too much out of future maintenance funds to pay back bonding obligations.

Details about how much the state would repay each year over 20 years are still being worked out. Whatever that payment comes to, it would be a combination of General Fund and existing CDOT dollars.

Complicating matters is the state of the budget. Lawmakers are already being asked to approve controversial budget maneuvers and cuts in order to close a $373 million gap.

One proposal by the governor’s office is to reduce refunds owed to taxpayers by reducing the amount the state collects from a fee charged to hospitals for occupied beds. The fee counts as revenue subject to refunds. Some Republican lawmakers have already expressed concerns with the idea.

“Time is of the essence,” said Sandra Hagen Solin, a lobbyist for Fix Colorado Roads, who added that polling suggests that voters are receptive to the proposal. “We’ve got projects in the state that just can’t wait.”

Colorado faces a gap in transportation funding of about $800 million per year.

A complete list of projects for the bonding program is still being compiled, but based on previous requests, priorities would be placed on Interstate 70 West, Interstate 25 North from Colorado Highway 14 south to 136th Avenue and Interstate 25 South from Monument Hill to Castle Rock.

Based on previous studies, at least $100 million in immediate transportation priorities have been identified for Southwest Colorado. Target corridors include U.S. Highway 160, U.S. Highway 491, U.S. Highway 550, Colorado Highway 151 and Colorado Highway 172. Plans run the gamut, including everything from improving wildlife crossings to enhancing intersections.

Supporters of the bond proposal say that Colorado does not devote a permanent General Fund stream to transportation. No general spending has gone to transportation since before the recession. Even a looming transfer of up to $200 million for transportation, because of a 2009 state law, would only be temporary.

“What we’re suggesting is that we go back and we restore that General Fund commitment,” Solin said. “We’re not asking for a tax increase, but we’re saying we want the state to have skin in the game in the state budget for this priority.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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