Rough roads ahead

Those who are trying to prepare Colorado’s transportation system, especially its highways, to meet future needs face some formidable obstacles.

There are bridges and highways in excess of 70 years old, more than 120 structurally deficient bridges, increasing numbers of cars and trucks on the road but, because of better fuel economy, very little increase in funding from the gasoline and diesel taxes.

And there is this: 63 percent of Coloradans believe the state’s transportation system is just fine the way it is.

Those are among the facts made public at a series of transportation meetings being held around the state this autumn, including one in Grand Junction last Wednesday.

Well, count us among those who do believe there are serious transportation problems that Colorado needs to deal with, even if we don’t necessarily accept the high-end estimate that it will take at least $1.5 billion more per year to solve them. And those problems aren’t likely to disappear with the coming election.

Nine days from now, Coloradans will decide whether we want to set aside increased revenue from the current severance tax for highways, whether we want to effectively raise the severance tax but use very little of that money for highways or — possible, but unlikely — whether we want to do both.

Whatever happens with Amendments 52 and 58 on Nov. 4, few people expect there will be a huge new stream of revenue flowing to the Colorado Department of Transportation. So there will be another legislative scramble to find new ideas for transportation funding, made all the more difficult by the current economy.

There are no easy solutions, but we offer these thoughts to lawmakers, transportation officials and others.

First, they should avoid plans that would substantially raise costs to Coloradans without seeking voter approval, as was contemplated last year with vehicle registration fees and a few other fees. Voters may approve such fee increases as highway needs become more apparent. But they will object vociferously to those and other funding plans if higher fees are foisted upon them without their approval.

Also, policy makers shouldn’t be quick to reject different ideas, simply because they don’t fit the template for how things have been done in the past.

With that in mind, we were pleased to hear Grand Junction resident and Transportation Commission Chairman Doug Aden say Wednesday that toll roads and private road development “need to be part of the discussion.” Toll roads, both to raise money for increased highway capacity and to relieve congestion in certain areas, have worked well in many places, even if they are not initially popular.

But highway planners face another obstacle, one that was also mentioned at the meeting in Grand Junction: political leaders who have not made transportation needs a top priority.

When members of the Legislature routinely take discretionary funds that are supposed to go to transportation and use them for something else, and when the governor endorses a plan to significantly raise revenue from the severance tax but dedicates little of that money to highways, it should come as no great surprise that a large majority of Coloradans don’t consider transportation funding as an emergency.


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