The various stakeholders tentatively have agreed on a route for the realignment of U.S. Highway 550 – something some locals who call the first stage of the project “The Bridge to Nowhere” – doubted ever would happen.
“Instead of a perfect storm, we ended up with a perfect opportunity to solve the problem,” said Chris Webb, managing member of the Marie J. Webb Ranch.
The original preferred route essentially would have cut the Webb Ranch in half.
“With a new leader in Kerrie Neet and independent engineering consultants who said, ‘Let’s reason this out together,’ one good thing led to another,” Webb said.
But now the Colorado Department of Transportation faces an even larger problem regarding the Grandview interchange project: How do we pay for it? The project will cost an estimated $75 million to $91 million, depending on whether it is done in phases or in one stage.
“We had high hopes when the governor’s budget office said it was likely Senate Bill 228 would kick in,” Colorado Transportation Commissioner Sidny Zink said. “But now it looks like the refund will kick in.”
The bill will kick in when personal income growth exceeds 5 percent annually, which happened in 2014. The bill authorizes the transfer of up to $200 million into CDOT’s Strategic Transportation Project Investment Program, and the realignment of U.S. Highway 550 to eliminate Farmington Hill is on the list of projects identified in the program.
“We wouldn’t just do the projects on the list blindly, but being on the list is helpful,” Zink said.
But there is a catch: If personal income growth hits 6 percent or higher, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights kicks in, requiring an automatic taxpayer refund. That seems to be the current status, and it is a bit of a Catch-22. Personal income growth always is good, but too much growth and the money isn’t available for much-needed infrastructure projects.
“I’m going to the Colorado Forum next week, and the TABOR refund issue will be one of the main topics,” Zink said at a CDOT open house last week.
Understanding CDOT’s budget is a key part of the puzzle. Zink said the department’s entire budget is about $1.2 billion annually.
“We get $3.5 million in discretionary funds for priority projects covering all 15 counties in Southwest Colorado,” said Neet, the Region 5 director for the transportation department. “And the majority of that goes to maintaining the system we currently have.”
The other problem is that the U.S. Highway 550 realignment isn’t the only project in the Strategic Transportation Project list. There are 27 other projects across the state clamoring for funding.
“The elephant in the room is the planned I-70 viaduct,” Zink said. A viaduct is a long bridge of short spans supported on piers, usually to carry a road over a valley. “It’s planned to go from downtown out to Peña Boulevard, which goes to Denver International Airport, and the cost for its three phases is close to $1 billion over three to five years.”
What about federal money? It is a U.S. highway, after all.
“Who knows?” Zink said. “Congress put a Band-Aid on the Federal Highway Trust Fund, so when and if any money would be available is a big question.”
It does not appear that Congress will address the reauthorization of the Federal Highway Funding Bill any time soon. In August, Congress approved a short-term fix of $11 billion to keep the fund solvent through next May. No further action on a long-term solution of keeping the fund solvent has been taken.
There is no clear avenue to funding, Neet said, but for the short term, she thinks the funding to begin acquiring rights-of-way and the engineering might be available as early as 2016.
“There’s nothing in Colorado’s budget for a project this large. so some kind of bonding initiative might be a way to find financing,” she said.
The road is an important artery.
“If people understood the importance of highways to the economy of rural Colorado, they might understand how key this project is,” Neet said. “It’s the only thing we have, and it’s a lifeline. This project would have a big impact.”
This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of Peña Boulevard.