Colorado Senate Could Pass Bill to Subsidize Highways, Snub Transit

Known as SB 1, the bill would also make toll lanes harder to build and threatens to undermine a more transit-oriented funding measure on the November ballot.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the Senate passed the bill, but the full Senate has not yet voted.

Last week Colorado senators reached a compromise on a transportation bill that would subsidize roads while setting aside table scraps for transit projects and making it harder to add tolled lanes. Known as SB 1, the bill would be a step backward for Colorado transportation policy and it threatens to undermine a more transit-oriented funding measure on the November ballot.

SB 1 is decidedly about expanding freeways and doubling down on driving [PDF]. CDOT would get $500 million from the state’s general fund for expansions of I-25 and I-70, among other highway projects, feeding the state’s vicious cycle of road widenings and rising traffic. Then in 2019, it would put a $2.5 billion road bond on the state ballot.

“We’ve found that sinking more money into new highways often does little to address congestion and hampers our fight against global warming,” said Alana Miller, a Denver-based policy analyst with the environmental nonprofit Frontier Group. “Funding maintenance of existing infrastructure, while expanding public transportation, biking, and walking will best serve Colorado now and in the future.”

The legislation would also forbid the addition of toll lanes on new or existing roads unless project managers prove that other options for “capacity expansion” are not feasible. “It creates a set of bars that are so high I don’t think you could ever pass them,” says Will Toor, director of transportation programs for the Southwestern Energy Efficiency Project.

Toor believes the managed lane amendment is meant to preempt toll lanes, which help pay for the true cost of roads, on a southern portion of I-25 in El Paso County.

The Senate could vote on the bill this week. In the House, SB 1 has a Republican sponsor, minority whip Perry Buck, but no co-sponsors among the Democratic majority. That could change, however, and if SB 1 is signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper, it could weaken the prospects for a transportation spending measure on the November ballot with a better funding mix for transit, biking, and walking.

A coalition led by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce has been leading the campaign for a ballot measure, which could allocate 40 percent of the revenue from a sales tax hike to cities and counties, and 60 percent to CDOT, with 15 percent of CDOT’s share reserved for transit.

There are multiple scenarios, each with a different sales tax increment, and the Chamber is waiting to decide which version it wants to put on the ballot. On Friday, just before the deadline, the Chamber filed yet another version, which would raise the statewide sales tax by .35 cents, bringing in a projected $350 million per year, known as Initiative 182 [PDF].

Initiative 182 would raise less than other versions of the sales tax measure — the largest of which would be set at 1 cent and raise $1 billion per year. The idea is to make it more palatable in the event that SB 1 is enacted first. While the Initiative 182 funding formula is more generous to cities and counties, giving them 80 percent of the pie, it’s a smaller pie, and it comes attached to the roads-heavy SB 1.

The Chamber will wait to see what happens in the legislature before deciding which version of the sales tax measure it will put on the ballot.

“As a member of the coalition, the chamber continues to work with our partners throughout the state and closely monitor the Legislature’s efforts to ensure we address our state’s critical transportation needs,” Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber, told the Durango Herald last week. “It’s important to keep all options on the table.”

  • TakeFive

    Due to your obsessive need to propagandise, this is highly confusing. Since I follow this stuff fairly well, if I’m confused I can only imagine those that aren’t that familiar. Certainly it’s your editorial privilege but I’d have to believe that most can regurgitate these talking points in their sleep by now. Maybe consider newsworthy write-ups differently from the purely agenda-based pieces. Just sayin’.

    The last I had heard was reported by CPR.

    But in a rare evening vote Wednesday, two Republicans broke with their party to support an amendment that re-writes SB18-001 and delays the bond ask to 2019. What do they get in return? The amendment commits a half a billion dollars in surplus tax revenue next year to new road projects.

    Because the state budget now indicates a $1.3 billion surplus for next year Gov. Hickenlooper recommended CDOT receive a one-time infusion of $500 million – which is not a long-term revenue fix which is also needed.

    SB1 as originally proposed had no chance of passing the Dem controlled House. This amended version was instigated by Democratic Senators and they convinced two Republicans to break ranks. The purpose is to clear a path for a better designed initiative:

    Backers of the amendment want to keep the bond package off the 2018 ballot to clear the way for a business-backed proposal to raise the sales tax to fund transportation. They fear having two competing visions for how to fund transportation on the ballot would make it more likely voters reject both ideas.

    Democratic state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada helped broker the deal. “I am very grateful to the two members of the Republican caucus who stood with us,” she said after the vote. “That allows any other out-of-the building initiative that plans on moving forward a fair opportunity.”

    Your mention of Initiative 182, which I wasn’t aware of is highly confusing so I’ll wait for the DBJ version. SB1 is not a long-term funding mechanism and “delaying the bond ask” means nothing really. Not being used to reading the ‘legalize’ in the pdf, I don’t fully understand what they are proposing and its purpose in contrast to the other four initiatives already submitted.

  • TakeFive

    Uhh, it seems that SB1 has not yet been passed by the (full) Senate or else you’re the only one who knows about it? My bad… this is not a ‘newsworthy’ piece but indeed just ‘editorializing’ that is highly confused at that.

    Since we’re just editorializing my personal preference among Denver Chamber et al choices would be Door 4 that would increase sales taxes by five-tenths percent and also commit the legislature to $150 million per year. Given the politics as well as appearances to voters this looks like the best option to me.

    With respect to the Whole state I’d guess that ~98% of the population is interested in roads. Presumably some proposal will come to fruition sooner or later; the real question is what? The Denver Chamber’s proposals provide a nice mix that includes local funding and decision making so it would be nice if ‘Door 4’ could move to a vote and be approved.

    Meanwhile I’m happy as a pig in slop since I live where there already exists a Best in Class transportation system. In fact, Phoenix was one of only three cities where transit ridership actually went up last year according to Angie/Streetsblog: Seattle was up 3% while Phoenix was up 2.7%; Houston was essentially flat, up .7 percent.

    • Don’t try to make too much of the transit system comparison stats. Phoenix and Houston are coming up from miserable performance. Seattle’s added resources are documented in this site. All three of the cities where boardings grew implemented service improvements that affected large numbers of potential riders.

      When looking at the short term, RTD has been busy opening Fastracks lines, but major parts of what has been opened were built for long-term economic or real estate development. Someday they’ll be necessary, but they,provide little help for a one or two-year comparison,

      • TakeFive

        Before I forget it, you might enjoy (and I’m sure we’d enjoy your input) on the Transportation page on SSF. ( ) The heavy traffic goes to the Denver development page. ( ) I may not be the smartest but I’ve (by default) taken the lead for the last year or so but not sure how muich longer… btw, we have been posting/talking about RTD light rail ridership within the week. Our ‘monitor,’ not as active as once was, is a CU Grad and D.C./NoVA planner and good guy.

        With respect to Seattle which is at magnitudes higher level (now), it stripped down to a bare bones system following the Great Recession. As things improved they started spending ST3 money on their six RapidRide routes. These were well executed and have become sort of a backbone of bus travel. Point being they too were coming off of a low base so improvement was easy peasy. Houston got a one-time shot when they redesigned their system and have mostly treaded water since.

  • jcwconsult

    In most cities, the majority of commuters prefer to drive because 1) the door to door time is significantly shorter than with transit, 2) it is private, 3) it makes carrying work product or personal items easier, 4) it doesn’t require as much time outside in bad weather, and 5) it makes multiple stops possible including shopping.

    For the people who find transit a better solution, that is great, but not the majority.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    • That’s usually true when people think of their commute as the most important thing in their life. And when their thinking is insulated by billions of general tax income and forced property development constraints spent over the past century to keep them from being confronted with the consequences of their commute,

      • jcwconsult

        As a typical example: the “extra” half hour per work day (15 minutes difference AM and PM) with one’s spouse and family is pretty important to some people. The ability to do the work commute AND drop off or pick up children from school is very valuable to some people. Not walking to and standing at a bus stop in the rain, cold or snow makes a huge difference to some people – particularly older people.

        For what it is worth, the NMA has advocated for a long time for adequate fuel taxes to pay for our roads as the correct and fairest user fees. Only legislators with inadequate gonads has prevented this solution.

        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • LinuxGuy

          Much gas tax money is spent on non-driving projects. A lot is wasted nationwide.

    • kollidoscopeas

      Your argument ignores how land use, particularly single-family zoning combined with mandatory parking minimums, has enabled driving to deliver those outcomes.

      Depending on density, land use mix, and availability of parking at the origin and destination, driving can be significantly more cumbersome than public transit, biking or walking, which are modes that, last time I checked, people use to string trips and provide enjoyment. And driving costs waaaayyyyy more than any other mode.

      • jcwconsult

        The outcomes will remain the same for those people who prefer single family homes – 1) shorter time, 2) privacy, 3) carrying items, 4) less time in weather, & 5) making multiple stops. For many people, driving to work means personal freedom – which has a HIGH value to many people.

        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • kollidoscopeas

          But that’s my point: how many Americans prefer to drive because they don’t have any other option? Is not having any other option “personal freedom”?

          Exclusively building single family homes, which has been America’s modus operandi since WW2, is incredibly detrimental to commute times in the long run because it forces people to drive at a faster rate than what may be supported by investments in the built environment (building highways and stroads, for example). To top it off, investments in highways and stroads offer some of the worst long-term ROI of any public infrastructure project while simultaneously inducing demand for more driving, a fact that we’ve known for a long time.

          • jcwconsult

            Our major failing, as I see it, is the federal and state governments failures to keep the fuel and registration taxes in line with road costs and inflation. People who want to live in single family homes and drive some distance to work or shop should be paying proper user fees to support that lifestyle. The NMA has supported proper fuel tax rates for a long time because they are proportional to use and very inexpensive to collect, typically at a cost of about 1% of the revenue. Some close relatives lived in a big condo complex in a commercial area with multiple transit, shopping, and entertainment venues in walking distance. But when their child got to about age 7 or 8, the advantages of a single family home became more important to them.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • kollidoscopeas

            I agree with you that it was a major mistake that fuel and registration taxes aren’t indexed to inflation. But the idea that the group most affected by such a change–suburban Americans–will agree to tax their income and their cars to fix roads AND price driving accurately doesn’t seem to be digestible politically.

            It might be digestible if there were greater shares of transit-supportive land uses in metropolitan regions such that a majority of residents could get around without their automobiles. But without that, increasing the fuel tax would disproportionately affect the growing population of suburbanites living below the poverty line, people who have more often than not been priced out of urban areas with better mobility options.

          • jcwconsult

            Wouldn’t better transit options in the metro regions reducing the need to use cars make that housing even more expensive? And small engine cars are pretty cheap on gas. 20,000 miles per year for a far-suburban resident at 30 mpg, uses 667 gallons. An increase of $0.40/gallon costs only $267 a year or $5 a week.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • kollidoscopeas

            Is it true that academic research has demonstrated a positive correlation between new transit infrastructure and land/property value uplift? Yes, but in the US, such value uplift has been marginal–less than 5% in most cases, with NYC and SF rail transit projects being the exception.

            In actuality, because the US has severely under-built multifamily housing since World War 2, “back to the city” movers pay a premium for walkable urbanism, because there are only a handful of places in each state that provide it. And the biggest constraint on the market building more walkable urbanism are the insanely high land and capital cost of mandatory parking minimums.

            And if we’re talking tradeoffs, it should be pointed out that someone buying a local RTD bus pass for 12 trips per week will spend a total of $1,623 for transportation over a year (assuming 12 trips for 52 weeks). The cost for 667 gallons of gas at the current $2.46/gallon rate in Denver (AAA weekly data)? $1,640.82

          • jcwconsult

            We do have a couple of generations that have less history with cars and are more likely to look at apartments or condos in metro areas where there is some chance to find employment, residence, and shopping all within walking distance. But very few of these younger generations will be entirely without cars in most places in the USA.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association



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