5 March 2014: Highway histrionics all about funding

Highway histrionics all about funding

If the comments at Rep. KC Becker’s Town Hall meeting can serve as a barometer, there’s considerable apprehension about the I-70 corridor, understandably so given the recent brouhaha about the Boulder Turnpike being essentially handed over to foreign nationals.  What next?

Colorado Public Radio reported that “Outside a key CDOT meeting on the future of U.S. 36, a small group of protesters handed out Colorado flags and explained their objections to the Plenary Roads deal. Among other things, they’re unhappy that the contract allows tolls as high as $14 dollars each way.”

The Denver Post calls the Plenary Group that leads Plenary Roads Denver “an international infrastructure business”; Colorado Public Radio calls it an “Australian business consortium.”  Regardless, Goldman Sachs is its financial adviser.  Perhaps the protesters ought to have waved red flags in lieu of Colorado ones.

As reported by the Courant last week, Becker took note of the US 36 Corridor controversy and pointed out that she is one of 14 representatives that asked CDOT, to no avail, to put a hold on completing the deal with Plenary Roads Denver until they could review the process and contract.

It’s easy to be angry with CDOT—and, yes, the department’s name is a misnomer being that its emphasis is really about roads and not alternative forms of transportation such as rail—but in the end we have only ourselves to blame.  Our funding mess has a variety of roots.

First, our traditional way of funding road improvements, the tax motorists pay at the pump, has never been tied to inflation, and at 40.4 cents per gallon in Colorado, it hasn’t increased in two decades.   According to the American Petroleum Institute, Colorado ranks among the bottom 15 states in funding.

Compounding that is wonderful stuff that inversely impacts the funding: driving less—particularly the millennials—as well as driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.  While that’s good news for stemming climate change, it isn’t for road and bridge infrastructure maintenance.

Second, Colorado has two laws that have either hamstrung our ability to take care of our roads or have provided a legal method to turn them over not only to American corporations, but foreign as well: TABOR and FASTER.

The disaster known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights has helped push Colorado to the bottom in educational funding but, as noted, in transportation as well.  I used to merely berate legislator proponents of TABOR as being weak-kneed, unwilling to make the tough calls, but with the state spiraling ever downward due to lack of funding, I call into question their integrity when it comes to taking care of the state.  In short, they’re abrogating their responsibility.  Our one hope is that US Supreme Court rules TABOR in violation of Article IV of the Constitution which holds the national government responsible for states having a republican form or government.

The other law, FASTER, is a well-intentioned act passed in 2009 to bolster transportation funding.  One of its provisions, however, creates a High Performance Transportation Enterprise board to set up P3s: “public-private partnerships” state governments are increasingly buying into to fund infrastructure projects.

The CPR reports National Conference of State Legislatures transportation researcher Jim Reed being recently called to the Capitol for a hearing on the U.S. 36 contract.  “He told lawmakers that even some states with relatively strong economies, like Virginia, Texas and Florida have started relying on P3s.”

“Thirty-three states currently allow such contracts, according to the NCSL,” continues the CPR report.  “P3s are already being used on transit projects in Colorado, although the U.S. 36 deal will be the first for roads.”

“I would say in the last 10 years it’s become more of a trend because of lack of dollars,” said Reed to the CPR.

Of course, there is some serious gloating from Republicans on the FASTER law with Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman chiming in, FASTER “created unelected commissions and empowered them to secretly contract with private companies. The public is displaying the same outrage that we exhibited when we tried to stop this legislation…I don’t want to say ‘I told you so,’ but…”

Yes, you did, Sen. Cadman, but let’s be helpful and offer us your solution.

I’ll offer mine next week for the I-70 Corridor, which would be infinitely better than $14 tolls to Denver.

Programming note: On his KYGT program Neighborhood: Earth, Randy Wheelock is doing a four-part series on the reform movement in public education.  The first edition, “The Reformers take over the Jeffco Board of Education,” can be heard on the radio’s website.  I highly encourage everyone to listen to it and subsequent programs to become better informed.


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