DENVER – Southwestern Colorado needs more than $470 million to improve roads, but an effort to use surplus tax money to cover those costs will fall far short of the region’s needs.
This year, Colorado expects $64.8 million in surplus revenue, and House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, hopes to claim it for state education and transportation budgets. In November, voters rejected ballot measures that would have boosted budgets for both.
But, if passed, the refund would barely cover Colorado’s $7.1 billion backlog in transportation and infrastructure projects. Instead, cities would be left to raise money through local tax hikes. And in rural Colorado, where populations are smaller, poorer and less inclined to raise taxes, transportation issues likely will languish. Southwest Colorado’s roads, which tend to be older and more remote, are particularly at risk, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.
“The problem is, you end up with a lot of the Western Slope and Eastern communities that won’t be able to keep up,” Gillow-Wiles said. “It’s a huge quandary for the state, and I’m not sure that we have yet figured out how to fix it.”
Becker’s effort to capture excess revenue for transportation projects will be further complicated by Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which requires the state to refund taxpayers if tax revenue exceeds a certain amount. TABOR also allows the state’s budget to keep that money if voters approve.
Becker’s bipartisan House Bill 1258, which will be heard by the House Finance committee on Monday, asks lawmakers to put the tax refund on the ballot and to dedicate a third of that money to transportation. But the bill would also permanently change TABOR by requiring that all future surplus revenue go to transportation and education.
Even if voters allow the state to keep the $64.8 million, towns in Southwest Colorado would receive only a few thousand dollars for transportation and transit projects. The 14 county region – as defined by the Colorado Department of Transportation – needs hundreds of millions.
Durango, for instance, needs an additional $2.5 million annually for its streets, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said in an email. The TABOR refund would give the city $15,702, and that money would be used for street repairs and maintenance, LeBlanc said.
“This is not enough money to address any major capital street projects,” he said.
Instead, Durango is asking voters to approve a 0.5 percent sales tax increase in the April 2 municipal elections.
The TABOR refund would fall far shorter in other towns such as Cortez, which will get $7,699, said Public Works Director Phil Johnson. The city would likely use the money to build wheelchair and disability access ramps, he said.
County transportation wish lists in Southwest Colorado also call for tens of millions more than the state can offer.
La Plata County’s list for the Colorado Department of Transportation includes some of the most expensive projects in the region, including $98.6 million to connect U.S. highways 550 and 160 at the Grandview Interchange, which has been funded but would have benefited from the November ballot measures. But CDOT still needs funding for Highway 550 improvements from Durango to the New Mexico border as well as $36 million to turn Highway 160 at Dry Creek Pass into a divided four-lane highway.
Montezuma County asked for more than $25.6 million to rebuild and widen a stretch of Highway 160 and $11.2 million to add passing lanes on the highway through Towaoc. There are other multimillion-dollar project requests in Archuleta, Alamosa, Ouray, San Miguel and Saguache counties.
Last year, Southwest Colorado compiled the list of 20 transportation projects that would receive funds from Proposition 109, which directed the state to borrow up to $3.5 billion to finance 66 highway projects, and from Proposition 110, which would have raised up to $767 billion in sales tax revenue for other projects in its first year. The measures failed overwhelmingly statewide, but also were rejected in La Plata and Montezuma counties.
Lawmakers say they don’t intend to put another statewide transportation tax on the ballot this year, but planning transportation budget fixes around potential tax refunds might prove risky. Budget forecasters expect tax revenues in coming years to exceed TABOR’s cap by as little as $6.5 million to as much as $1 billion. And the 2018 TABOR refund that Becker is targeting could fluctuate wildly in coming months as the state’s revenue forecasts adjust and a potential recession looms on the horizon. If Becker’s bill passes, there might be even less of a refund to put on the ballot.
Lawmakers know that Becker’s solution won’t be a enough. But it’s a start, said Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, who is sponsoring Becker’s bill in the Senate.
“This isn’t a magic bullet,” he said in March. “We need to keep working at a bare minimum in a bipartisan manner.”