2018 could break back of highway inaction

The year 2018 is shaping up to be a critical year for realizing measurable progress on widening north Interstate 25 and addressing Colorado’s transportation funding needs. 

In a matter of weeks, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s contractors will break ground on Phase One of the North I-25 Express Lanes Project. The project is the result of a unified commitment by local leaders, CDOT and our business community through the Fix North I-25 Business Alliance, to work collectively to secure the money necessary to make interchange improvements and add an additional lane. Phase One will provide a temporary third lane in both directions of North I-25 between Colorado Highway 402 south of Loveland and Colorado Highway 14 in Fort Collins. 

Meanwhile, stretches of North I-25 south of Loveland still lack the funding necessary to build a permanent — or even a temporary — third lane in both directions.  We await word from the federal government about a grant award that can be matched by other CDOT funds to provide another $300 million for that stretch of interstate. 

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While this patchwork approach to funding North I-25 is delivering progress, securing the additional $1 billion plus necessary to achieve full buildout of the North I-25 corridor depends upon action by our legislative leaders and governor at the Capitol.

Transportation has been a diminishing priority for state leaders over the past decade.  Since the Great Recession ended in 2009, state government revenue has grown by more than $4 billion — only $350 million of which has gone toward highways. In a similar 10-year period prior to 2009, more than $2.2 billion of general fund revenue was dedicated to transportation. No wonder our roads are failing us!  And, CDOT has a $9 billion backlog of transportation projects statewide — including North I-25.

While the picture of the past is dire, a convergence of factors has presented a unique window of opportunity for our state leaders to make truly meaningful investments in transportation now.

The Colorado economy is growing, which means state revenues are growing. In mid-March, state economists predict a whopping $1.3 billion in new revenue since last year’s budget. Transportation funding should be at the top of the spending priority list.

Senate Bill 18-001 currently sits before the Colorado Legislature and would direct $300 million of general funds to the state transportation fund. The bill would also refer a measure to Colorado voters to approve $3.5 billion of transportation bonds using the new general fund money to secure the bonds. Passage would accelerate critical transportation projects across Colorado and make a significant dent in CDOT’s estimated $9 billion of unfunded needs.

On the heels of the state revenue forecast, Gov. Hickenlooper asked the Legislature to allocate $500 million of that new revenue to transportation on a one-time basis. While this is a bold and commendable step, one-time funding isn’t enough. Committing to permanent, predictable and reliable transportation funding from the general fund is imperative.

Adding urgency to our efforts is the Trump administration’s plan to award new federal infrastructure funds based on state and local participation. In short, states and cities committing new resources to infrastructure are better positioned to secure federal funding. Today, Colorado is ill-prepared to compete for those dollars.

With these factors, the Legislature has a unique window of opportunity to make 2018 the year a statewide transportation funding and finance solution is brought to the voters.  With a statewide solution comes the opportunity to fix North I-25. 

Colorado’s livability and economic health are impacted by transportation mobility. We need to understand that a solution is coming to rescue us from our current situation of growing congestion. It starts with a commitment by state legislators and the governor to take strong leadership on the transportation issue. Let’s fix this.

David May, president of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce, is convener of the Fix North I-25 Steering Committee, an initiative of the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance.


 

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