VERIFY – YOU’VE GOT QUESTIONS, WE’LL FIND ANSWERS
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Coloradans could be asked to pay more money in exchange for $3.5 billion worth of projects to improve roads, bridges and relieve traffic congestion.
House Bill 1242, which was released by leaders in Colorado’s House and Senate last week, would ask voters to increase the state sales tax to 3.52 percent from 2.9 percent for 20 years.
If it passes the legislature, voters would get to decide in November if they want to pay for these transportation projects.
We’ve received several emails since lawmakers revealed the proposal asking us what Colorado’s Department of Transportation does with its current billion-dollar budget.
WHAT WE FOUND:
The Verify team spoke with Amy Ford, a spokesperson for CDOT. We also read through CDOT’s budgets, opinion pieces from think tanks on transportation funding and a state audit.
Where does CDOT get its money?
The department draws from 10 different pools of money to build its budget. Those include the federal gas tax, state gas tax, registration fees, general fund dollars from the legislature and money from local governments.
CDOT’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 is $1.4 billion.
That’s a lot of money. What are they doing with it?
The agency says more than half goes to maintaining the roads and bridges we already have. In case you’re wondering, Colorado has 3,454 bridges and 23,000 lane miles of highway.
And its employees plow more than 6 million lane miles of road during the winter.
Six percent of CDOT’s budget gets eaten up by administration costs, and 14 percent is what’s called “pass through” funds.
This is when CDOT acts as a middleman between the federal government and local governments that receive money for a project. CDOT doesn’t get to spend the money, it just passes through the agency’s hands.
Nearly $90 million is earmarked for expansion projects, and $112 million to goes to repair, reconstruct and replace bridges.
Why isn’t that enough money?
CDOT says it needs $9 billion over the next 10 years, and $2.5 billion of those projects are what it classifies as high priority.
A large chunk of that money would be spent on building new roads and bridges.
Right now, CDOT spends about $80 million a year for new projects. That means, at this rate, it would take about 31 years to complete everything on CDOT’s high priority list.
Are all CDOT’s projects necessary?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
Conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation claim part of the problem is that gas tax dollars are being diverted to non-highway projects like mass transit, bike paths, and sidewalks that aren’t “federal priorities.”
But mayors in metropolitan cities often cite bike paths and mass transit as being key components to luring tech companies and millennials.
And CDOT says Colorado’s increasing popularity makes expansion projects necessary.
What about that massive project for Interstate 70?
The legal challenges aren’t over for the $1.2 billion project to widen 10 miles of I-70 between I-25 and Chambers Road. Transportation officials received a document called a record of decision earlier this year, which technically gives them the green light.
However, the Sierra Club’s lawsuit over federal air quality standards hasn’t been resolved.
But it’s still possible that construction could start in 2018.
Didn’t Colorado raise vehicle registration fees in 2009 to fix the funding problem?
The Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery Act of 2009 (FASTER) raised registration fees and increased fines to pay for CDOT projects.
The law generates about $250 million per year.
That’s a substantial amount of money, but it’s not enough to keep up with CDOT’s growing list of new projects.
The first reason is Colorado’s popularity.
The state’s population has grown 53 percent since 1991, but the number of lane miles on the highway has increased by only two percent, according to CDOT.
Denver drivers spend 49 hours a year stuck in traffic or delayed due to poor road conditions, according to a report released earlier this year by TRIP, a national transportation research group.
Those delays come with an annual price tag of $2,162.
“Throughout Colorado, 41 percent of major, locally and state-maintained urban roads are in poor condition and six percent of Colorado’s locally and state-maintained bridges are structurally deficient,” according to TRIP.
CDOT says it needs $2.55 billion over the next 10 years to hit its goal of having 80 percent of Colorado’s roads rated at high/moderate drivability. Without new revenue, its projected budget for road repairs during the next 10 years is $385 million.
The second reason for the current funding shortfall is declining revenues from state and federal gas taxes.
And another state agency cites mismanagement as a third reason.
The state auditor criticized CDOT for its oversight of the FASTER program in 2015.
For example, the audit found 40 percent of the program’s safety projects lacked proof of approval by the Transportation Commission, and the agency didn’t check to see how those dollars were spent.
What is the gas tax and how does it work?
The federal government and the states each collect a tax from every gallon of gas you pump. That money is supposed to build and maintain roads and bridges.
But that pot of money’s been dwindling in recent decades because the Colorado and the federal government haven’t raised gas taxes and we’re driving more fuel-efficient cars.
For example, the state received 30 percent more money from gas taxes in 2000 than it does today when you adjust for inflation.
CDOT’s talked about replacing the gas tax with a mileage fee, but there are no concrete plans.
Paying for the roads and bridges we all use is complicated, and it’s something Coloradans are going to be hearing a lot more about in the coming weeks.
For now we’re giving you a brief overview of how transportation funding works. Stay tuned.