Colorado’s road funding is a shell game

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By The Staff

A shell game is under way at the state Capitol. So, what else is new, you ask? Well, this one involves a lot of money, and it is going to affect your own pocketbook — soon.

At stake are hundreds of millions of your tax dollars in the state’s operating budget that will be siphoned away from highways annually and diverted to growing government programs. This sleight of hand also involves hundreds of millions of dollars more, which the state will make each year from wide-ranging fee hikes that will be slapped on motorists. The next time you renew your vehicle registration, expect to pay $30 to $40 more for your family’s car.

That’s right — the state is going to hit you with a big fee hike on your car to raise money for the state’s highways, and yet at the same time some lawmakers are talking about taking away money the state already receives for the very same purpose. The fee hike is already a done deal, signed into law by the governor earlier this month. The other measure, diverting some of your hard-earned highway dollars, is now pending as Senate Bill 228.

Without a doubt, Colorado’s bottlenecked highway network needs help. There is a list of backlogged, basic upgrades to our state’s roads and bridges that by some estimates will cost at least $500 million more a year. Included on the list are more than 120 bridges around the state that need repairs, some urgently.

Some of us in the legislature have pressed for innovative solutions to our highway-funding woes, especially given a slumping economy in which tax revenue to state coffers has dipped unexpectedly by more than $600 million in the current budget year. We have brainstormed a number of viable, practical, yet creative options for financing highway upgrades. And alongside that, we have pressed the state to set priorities and devote more of the tax dollars it already has to highways.

I even pushed for what I called a “bridge-and-wallet” proposal that — mindful of the tight times facing family budgets — would have addressed our transportation network’s most critical safety concerns in the short term.

Unfortunately, we were rebuffed on all of these efforts by the ruling party at the General Assembly, as well as by our governor. Instead, they pushed through their fee hike — the highest in a generation — on every kind of vehicle, from passenger cars to commercial trucks. Not only will cars and SUVs be assessed substantial hikes, but some truckers will pay hundreds of dollars more a year to renew their registration.

At the same time, the $250 million a year that the state will derive from these higher motor-vehicle fees will be undercut by a substantially larger amount of money that the state’s highways actually will lose under the pending bill to divert transportation funding. The legislature’s nonpartisan research staff estimates that as early as the 2011-12 budget year, upwards of $340 million that would have been allocated to highways under the state’s current funding formula will be rerouted to the general operating budget — in other words, to whatever lawmakers choose to spend it on — under SB 228. In subsequent years, the amount of money siphoned away from highways under this ill-conceived measure only climbs, potentially totaling untold billions of dollars.

What’s even more galling is that, by calling this car tax a “fee,” they claim they can impose this hefty new levy on the public without even putting it to a vote — as required by our state constitution for any new taxes. And the same bill that rammed through the fee hikes also expands the use of tolling, even on existing highways — another back-door tax that will not be put to a vote of the people.

Why this shell game? Because the supporters of this scheme know the public never would approve a tax hike to expand assorted government programs. So, they instead play fast and loose, imposing higher fees and tolls for something that is important to most Coloradans — transportation — while diverting current tax revenue to assorted pet projects, at the behest of special interests.

In a sense, it amounts to double-charging the public to drive on the state’s highways.

That’s certainly no way to fund our vital infrastructure. More to the point, it is no way to treat Coloradans, who may now have to pick up the tab — twice — just to drive to work.

State Sen. Mike Kopp represents South Jefferson County in the Colorado Senate. He lives in Ken Caryl.