By rejecting two transportation-related ballot measures this month, Colorado voters whittled down available options to fund a backlog of infrastructure projects in the fast-growing state, according to those familiar with the issue.
The state's voters on Nov. 6 soundly defeated Propositions 109 and 110. Sponsored by leaders of the Independence Institute in Denver, Proposition 109 would have earmarked $3.5 billion in bonds for projects such as highways and bridges, with the state required to pay back the bonds through its general fund rather than a tax hike.
The other measure would have OK'd as much as $6 billion to fund roads and bridges, mass transit projects and local infrastructure. A bump in the sales tax would have allowed the state to pay for the bonds without affecting other public services.
“As you know, two transportation proposals went down, one that was a tax and debt increase for unspecified road and transit projects, and the other one was my proposal for a debt increase for specified road-only projects,” Jon Caldara, the Independence Institute's president, told Watchdog.org.
The message voters sent was that Colorado need not go into debt or raise taxes to fund needed improvements and maintenance to its transportation infrastructure, according to Caldara. The state has surplus funds that could meet Colorado's long-term transportation needs, if the new Democratic governor and the newly elected Democratic majorities in the state legislature want to do so.
“I just don't think that the soon-to-be progressive majority in both houses and the governor's office are going to spend that money on roads,” he said, adding that it's more likely those funds would get swallowed up on dependency programs, such as Medicaid expansion.
Colorado lawmakers should concentrate on a pay-as-you-go system to fix and improve roads and bridges, according to Caldara.
“I don't think it's necessary to borrow and pay it back,” he said. “I think the voters were pretty clear. That's not what they want.”
In their rejection of Proposition 110, the state's voters were also saying they have had enough of urban-oriented mass-transit projects.
“I think people were saying no to taxes, no to debt and no to transit,” Caldara said.
Ann Rajewski, executive director of the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies, expressed concern that the election results could mean that rural areas of the state will remain isolated.
“It would leave parts of the state that are more rural without a funding solution,” Rajewski told Watchdog.org. “... It's going to be hard to find a mechanism that voters will vote for.”
Those parts of the state with larger populations would still be in a position to put together regional transportation solutions, however, she said.
“That's why it was so disappointing to us because we believe a statewide solution is the best solution,” Rajewski said.
The association backed Proposition 110 because it took a long-range, comprehensive approach to transportation, she said. The measure would have divvied up its funding to provide 45 percent to highway projects and maintenance, 40 percent for municipal and county projects and 15 percent for so-called multi-modal options, including mass transit and bike lanes.
The state has a rising elderly population in both rural and urban areas, Rajewski said, and adequate public transportation options are key to allowing them to continue to live out their lives in their homes, as opposed to senior-care facilities.
The measure would have helped to assure that state officials didn't raid funds going to other public services in order to better fund infrastructure projects, she said.
“I don't want them to take money from K-12 education to fund transportation,” Rajewski said, adding that she still held out hope that the legislature may be able to divert some additional funds to infrastructure in the next two years.
Chuck Berry, president of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, agreed that voters had significantly narrowed the options available for infrastructure funding and that they soundly rejected the notion that the state should take money from the existing state budget to bond for transportation needs.
“And it's clear there was no appetite to pay for an increased sales tax,” Berry told Watchdog.org.
While the state legislature can provide some additional infrastructure funding on an annual basis, it won't be enough to solve the problems of gridlock, he said.
“That won't in any way solve the needs that the Colorado Transportation Commission has set forth,” Berry said.
Frustrations about traffic congestion, such as what occurs on I-25 near Fort Collins, are common among all Coloradans, not just business owners, he said. But Coloradans may take different views on funding for roads and bridges vs. mass-transit projects, according to Berry.
A Denver-area business might see mass transit as key to getting employees from home to work efficiently, he said, while residents in less populated areas may take a more critical view of such proposals.
“Younger workers look for a way to ride some kind of light rail line ... and prefer that,” Berry said.
In the wake of the Nov. 6 election, the chamber president is not optimistic that significant improvements will be made, he said.
“Some communities will ask their voters for authorizations to increase funding in their communities,” he said, adding that this approach can ease local congestion.
But the path for statewide solutions remains narrow, according to Berry.
“Coloradans will continue to suffer through traffic congestion and clogging roads and interstate highways,” he said.