DENVER – With the end of the legislative session about a month away, there is much to be done, including addressing Colorado’s $9 billion transportation funding needs.
Multiple bills have been introduced, each with a slightly different solution. But only two, House Bill 1242 and Senate Bill 267, remain, and both face an uphill battle to become law.
The more comprehensive of the two bills, HB 1242, calls for a sales tax increase to generate more than $650 million annually over 20 years and a $3.5 billion bonding measure. It requires voter approval, which lawmakers hope to gain by informing the public of exactly what their tax dollars would buy.
Enter Colorado Department of Transportation’s Development Program, which highlights a prioritized list of projects that CDOT believes need to be addressed in the next decade.
The list is the amalgamation of the work of 15 regional boards that have evaluated their geographical areas to determine what projects would have the greatest impact, said Amy Ford, CDOT’s communications director.
“This is not a small group up in Denver sitting and saying, ‘These should be the projects we should do.’ This is a very engaged, very involved, statewide process,” Ford said.
For CDOT Region 5, which includes most of Southwest Colorado including La Plata and Montezuma counties, the priorities identified were primary economic corridors such as U.S. highways 550 and 160.
Once the regional plans were developed, they were evaluated to determine which projects made the Tier 1 cut, with a preference given to those with the largest economic impact over projects that focused on driver safety, said Mike McVaugh, Region 5 transportation director.
On the Tier 1 list are seven projects in the Southwest, including five in La Plata County.
The top one is the completion of the Grandview Interchange, the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere,” on the south side of Durango. The project calls for rerouting Highway 550 across the top of Farmington Hill through a portion of the Webb Ranch. It accounts for two of the five priorities, including purchasing the right-of-way and then constructing the roadway.
Also included in the Tier 1 list are the widening of U.S. 550 in the Sunnyside area, also considered as two projects, and improvements on U.S. 160 near Elmore’s Corner.
The La Plata County projects would cost an estimated $121.3 million.
In addition, two other projects are planned for U.S. 160: adding passing lanes and turnouts near Towoac, south of Cortez, and reconstruction and multimodal improvements near Pagosa Springs. The projects are expected to cost $9.1 million and $27 million, respectively, bringing the total funding needed for Tier 1 projects in Southwest Colorado to $157.4 million.
As part of the buildup to a measure that would go to voters, CDOT is reanalyzing its priority projects and putting together a list that would go in the voter information guide to ensure people know exactly what their tax money would buy, Ford said.
For Region 5, the process has been completed and the results submitted to CDOT’s Transportation Commission to decide what would go in the voter guide.
The tax revenue generated by HB 1242 would also pay for other projects.
Of the $650 million generated by the proposed sales tax increase, $375 million would be earmarked for CDOT to pay off the bond and supplement its revenue for maintenance.
Of the remaining funds, about $192.5 million annually would be split between counties and municipalities, and $82.5 million would go into a grant-matching program for multimodal transit projects.
Amber Blake, assistant city manager for Durango, said the city expects transportation funding to double, from about $500,000 to $1 million if HB 1242 is approved.
Blake said the local funding would allow smaller governments to get projects off the ground, but the multimodal piece is particularly interesting to Durango.
That could be an avenue for Durango to subsidize the more than $160 million in projects outlined in its Mulitmodal Transportation Plan and keep the city’s transit service afloat.
“Overall, this bill is great, and it’s meeting many of the needs the state has. It’s not the silver bullet, but it’s getting us closer to where we need to be,” Blake said. An improvement she would like to see is a change in how the multimodal funding is distributed.
Rather than a grant-matching program, Blake said she would prefer to have the funds distributed to municipalities in the same way as the new funding to local governments with the understanding that it was to be used for multimodal transportation.
But she won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and if HB 1242, which has been passed by the House, makes it through the Senate and the tax measure is approved by voters, she is excited about what it could mean for Durango.
“That can go a long way in terms of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ramps and street maintenance and projects that we need to keep the quality of life and our roadways functioning,” Blake said.