bill that would direct an additional (and badly needed) $15 million to Colorado's highways has passed the state Senate and is set for a hearing next week in the House. It's facing near certain defeat there, and deservedly so given how it whacks back local mass transit subsidies. But Senate Bill 11 also makes a serious point about funding priorities.
Several million dollars of the redirected money would come from the state's dubious Bustang service, which began last summer and provides intercity bus commutes involving Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Glenwood Springs.
Why the state should be operating an intercity bus company is a question that has never been convincingly answered — especially when it drains money from repair and maintenance of existing infrastructure. The idea that the Bustang is making, or will ever make, a perceptible dent in congestion along the Front Range is not credible.
Mass transit is an absolutely critical component in local communities and greater metro Denver. But the state is not in a great position to be channeling millions of dollars at a small number of intercity commuters.
In a sense, though, the debate over SB 11 is beside the point, as even an additional $15 million a year isn't enough. As an article last month by The Denver Post's John Frank pointed out, per capita spending on transportation in 2015 in Colorado was just $69, compared with $126 in 1991.
That's why the state is hard-pressed to keep up with maintenance, let alone invest in improvements for which there is a consensus of support. Completing the widening of north Interstate 25 near Fort Collins, for example, is a $1 billion project for which the state has budgeted a mere token down payment.
Meanwhile, the legislature and governor haven't been able to agree on a plan to raise revenue. As a result, a coalition of private groups, including the Colorado Contractors Association, is considering marching into the breach with a ballot measure that would raise money for roads.
As Frank reported, one concept "would increase the state sales tax in exchange for a cut in the gas tax and the guarantee that new money is earmarked for road improvements."
This idea reportedly polls well, but it also appears gimmicky, and might even confuse voters as the election approaches. If voters are going to rule on a transportation ballot measure, we'd prefer a straightforward, modest boost in either the gasoline tax (which makes the most sense as a user fee, but apparently isn't popular) or sales tax.
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