Colorado Senate Chops Funding for Walking, Biking, and Transit While Softening the Blow for CDOT

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

The big statewide transportation bill has been weakened by the Republican-controlled Colorado Senate, which last week shrank the size of the funding package proposed for the November ballot. But highway-focused Colorado DOT will barely feel the pinch. Under the Senate’s plan, it’s guaranteed funding for transit, walking, and biking that takes the hit.

Last Tuesday, the bill, which includes a sales tax hike that voters will have to approve in November, made it through the Senate Transportation Committee — but not before getting diced up with amendments to appease the GOP. There are now some substantial differences between the Senate version and the version passed by the Colorado House.

Here’s the current situation.

Shrinking funds for walking, biking, and transit

The original .62 percent sales tax increase has been cut to .5 percent, which means it will generate an estimated $577 million per year over 20 years, a reduction of $100 million annually. While the new version gives CDOT a smaller share in favor of more funding for municipalities, the Senate wants to set aside $100 million in additional general fund revenue for CDOT — softening the blow for highways by robbing unidentified programs.

Meanwhile, the bill earmarks about $86.5 million per year for walking, biking, and transit projects, an annual reduction of $12 million.

“We certainly don’t want to see any more cuts to multimodal,” Colorado Public Interest Research Group Director Danny Katz told Streetsblog. He’s been tracking the bill’s progress through the capitol from the outset.

The $86.5 million will go into a “multimodal transportation options” account administered by the Colorado Department of Transportation Transit and Rail Advisory Committee. People from local governments, transit agencies, regional planning organizations, and an “advocate for affordable transportation” will then allocate the money via grants, which will match contributions from local governments.

More money for local governments

Cities and counties would split an estimated $288 million in new annual revenue — half to cities and half to counties. That’s an increase of about $60 million.

Municipalities have complete control over this money. Denver could spend it on a new bus rapid transit corridor or build out its bike network, for instance. The money could be used for major capital projects or for operations, like transit service.

Funding for CDOT doesn’t change much, thanks to unspecified cuts to other programs

While CDOT will be in line for about $125 million less in annual sales tax revenue than before, the Senate wants to make up for that by allocating $100 million more from the general fund.

If that idea survives the legislative process, it means voters will be asked to approve that $100 million in new spending without knowing what will be cut in the state budget to make room for it. It could be health care, education, or other social services that suffer. (The GOP claims it will find the money “in the cushions of the governor’s mansion.”)

And in another step backward, the bill also repeals a rule that required CDOT to spend 10 percent of its new revenue on transit. The upshot is that highway funding won’t be affected very much by the shrinking overall size of the pie.

The bill heads to the Senate Finance Committee next, on April 25, before eventually heading to the full Senate floor. Any differences with the House version will then get ironed out in conference committee before the measure heads to Governor Hickenlooper’s desk.