Editorial: Road to the future found in Proposition 110
On Nov. 6, Colorado voters will face an important, but confusing, choice as they consider competing ballot proposals to fund the state’s transportation needs.
Proposition 109, also known as the “Fix Our Damn Roads Transportation Bond Initiative,” would authorize $3.5 billion in bonds to fund statewide transportation projects, including bridge expansion, construction, maintenance, and repairs, and would require the state to repay the resulting debt from the general fund, with no increase in taxes or fees.
Proposition 110, on the other hand, authorizes $6 billion in bonds to fund transportation, but would secure payment of the bonds — not to exceed $9.6 billion — by increasing the state sales tax rate by 0.62 percent, from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent. Proceeds from the increase would be dedicated to bond repayment, and the increase itself would sunset Jan. 1, 2039.
In our view, there are only two viable options: Either both propositions fail, or one passes and the other fails. While passage of both is possible, that would create a legal conundrum, as key elements of the two are contradictory.
So, discounting the third option, the facts, as we see them, are as follows.
First, it can hardly be argued that Colorado’s roads are underfunded and in dire need of repair.
Currently, highway maintenance and construction is funded by the Colorado Department of Transportation, which receives the bulk of its revenue from gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. Colorado’s gasoline tax — which is $0.22 per gallon has not increased since 1991 — raises between $500 and $600 million per year, but this amount has not kept pace with the need. CDOT now estimates it will take another $1 billion per year to fully fund the state’s highway construction needs.
And those needs are real.
According to a June 2018 report from TRIP, a private, nonprofit national transportation research group, “Driving on Colorado roads that are deteriorated, congested, and that lack some desirable safety features costs Colorado drivers a total of $7.1 billion each year. Due to inadequate state and local funding, 40 percent of major urban roads and highways in Colorado are in poor to mediocre condition.”
The report concludes: “… Numerous projects to improve the condition and expand the capacity of Colorado’s roads, highways, bridges, and transit systems will not be able to proceed without a substantial boost in state or local transportation funding. If Colorado is unable to complete needed transportation projects, it will hamper the state’s ability to improve the condition and efficiency of its transportation system or enhance economic development opportunities and quality of life.”
So, it seems clear Colorado’s highway needs are urgent, and meeting those needs will be expensive, so we urge voters to strongly consider supporting either Proposition 109 or Proposition 110.
But which one?
The way we see it, Proposition 110 is the clear winner.
Proposition 109 asks us to commit ourselves to $5.2 billion in bonded indebtedness with no specific revenue stream to service that debt. And, while the notion of repairing the state’s crumbling highways without increasing taxes or fees might, at a glance, seem appealing, the fact remains: If you take a loan, you have to pay it back.
If Colorado voters opt for the 109 route, the state will be bound to repay whatever it spends, and without a new revenue source, allotting the necessary funds for debt service will mean reappropriating those funds from something else. What might that “something else” be? Education? Pensions? School safety? Health care?
None of these, in our opinion, is acceptable. And besides, it should be self-evident that taking on new debt without knowing how you’re going to pay it back is poor practice all the way around.
This leaves us with Proposition 110. It, too, creates new debt, but it also creates new revenue dedicated to paying that debt, and while we are hesitant to advocate another new tax, the modest increase proposed by 110 is, in our opinion, the most sensible path.
First, the increase will be paid by all — resident and visitor, alike — and its proceeds will fund a long-term plan to improve our roads, a benefit that will be shared by all — resident and visitor, alike.
According to Let’s Go Colorado, a supporter of 110, the sales tax increase would generate about $767 million in its first year, and a portion of those dollars would be paid by the more than 39 million tourists who visit Colorado every year.
Second, Proposition 110 includes a sunset clause, guaranteeing the increase will be removed in 20 years. This frames the work into a finite window and ensures Coloradans won’t be stuck paying a dedicated tax long after the need has been addressed.
Third, it disperses tax revenues throughout the state, so rural areas such as ours — areas that need road work the most — aren’t hung to the wind as projects are concentrated around the more populous, richer communities of the Front Range.
Under Proposition 110, 45 percent of the additional revenue would go to the state, 40 percent to local governments for local projects, and 15 percent to multimodal projects. This is a balanced approach that ensures everyone who pays the tax benefits from its dividends.
Transportation is a statewide concern that demands a statewide solution, and now is the time to take charge of our transportation needs and enact a plan that works for everyone.
If we don’t, we run the risk that more affluent areas, such as Denver and Boulder, might begin creating their own transportation districts and raising their own money, preemptively and effectively hamstringing any future statewide transportation initiatives.
Club 20, a group known for its devotion to fiscal conservatism, perhaps summed it up best in its Aug. 23 statement of support for Proposition 110.
“This measure provides new revenue that will allow CDOT to address the lion’s share of their Tier 1 project list while also providing much-needed funds to towns and counties to construct and repair local roads.”
Colorado, particularly rural Colorado, both needs and deserves better roads, and as we plan for our own future, and the futures of our children, it is crucial that we get behind balanced, long-term solutions that benefit everyone.
In our opinion, Proposition 110 does just that.