Outlook grim for funding U.S. 40 improvements | SteamboatToday.com

Outlook grim for funding U.S. 40 improvements

Brandon Gee

— The dismal state of transportation funding in Colorado and nationwide means all the talk about improving U.S. Highway 40 in the west Steamboat Springs area likely will remain just that for the foreseeable future.

Traffic congestion on the main conduit through Steamboat is gathering growing attention from residents and public officials. Various improvements to U.S. 40 have been identified as necessary, and the city is taking part in capacity and access analyses to prepare for them.

But plan all it likes, the city remains largely at the mercy of rapidly shrinking outside sources of funding, experts say.

“The short answer is there isn’t any” money, said Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush, “and there isn’t going to be any for a long time. There’s so many other needs.”

Mitsch Bush, vice chairwoman of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Northwest Transportation Planning Region, said those needs include projects already under way on Colorado Highway 131 and Colo. 13. When work continues on Colo. 131 this summer, it is expected to cost $2 million a mile.

“That’s not a new road,” Mitsch Bush said, “and that’s not even adding lanes.”

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At that cost, and with the Northwest Transportation Region – Routt, Moffat, Jackson, Grand and Rio Blanco counties – expected to receive only $23.5 million for highways between now and 2035, progress will be slow not only on projects already in the works, but also on projects such as the U.S. 40 improvements that are waiting in line for state funding.

“Right now, today, there’s not a lot of money out there for capacity projects,” said David Eller, a Region 3 program engineer for CDOT. “There’s a little each year and it’s getting harder and harder to come by.”

CDOT’s priorities also put U.S. 40 enhancements at a disadvantage.

“The state is in a fix-it-first mode,” said George Krawzoff, the city’s outgoing transportation director and a new member of the Colorado Transportation Commission. “System expansions are highly limited. Getting state funding for something like a lane widening – the only way to describe it is very difficult.”

The ‘quiet crisis’

The Colorado Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel has described transportation funding as a “quiet crisis.” Quiet, Mitsch Bush said, because the financial crisis has received little attention from the public and because it has emerged throughout many years.

“I don’t think most people are looking at the road system as on the brink of falling apart,” Krawzoff said.

State and federal gas taxes are the primary source of money for transportation. There hasn’t been a gas tax increase in Colorado in 17 years, according to a report released last month by Gov. Bill Ritter’s transportation panel. The tax is not indexed to inflation, which has averaged 6.4 percent since 1992. Because the tax is based on the number of gallons sold, it also has not benefited from the rising cost of gasoline and is taking a hit as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

According to Mitsch Bush, the state fuel tax in 1957 was 5.7 cents a gallon. If adjusted for inflation, the tax would have been 39.6 cents a gallon in 2006. Instead, the tax was only 20.3 cents a gallon that year. Mitsch Bush said this doesn’t show the entire shortfall, however, as construction costs, especially for road and bridge needs, have risen at a higher rate than inflation overall.

“The gas tax isn’t keeping up – not even close,” Mitsch Bush said. “What we’ve got then are coffers that are decreasing dramatically and demands that are increasing dramatically and costs for road construction that are increasing very dramatically.”

“The state faces some major problems,” Krawzoff added.

One of those problems is a $155 billion funding gap by 2030 if nothing is done, according to the transportation panel’s report. While $104 billion of that gap is related to new construction and transportation enhancements, about $51 billion of the gap is related just to the cost of sustaining existing infrastructure. Krawzoff said the state won’t be able to meet its goal of keeping 60 percent of roads in good condition for much longer. The transportation panel estimates that more than 70 percent of the state’s roadway surfaces will be in poor condition by 2026.

Cautious hope

Philo Shelton, the city’s public works director, said there are sources other than CDOT that could help fund U.S. 40 improvements. He anticipates some work could be accomplished with money from the city and county. Some responsibility also could be put on developments such as Steamboat 700, Shelton said.

“There’s a lot of tools in the bag,” Shelton said. “It just depends on who has the means and the will to put up the funding.”

Even with those options, however, Shelton said work would be very limited.

“I guess I could see us doing segments,” Shelton said. “I can’t see us widening the whole portion of U.S. 40 out to Steamboat II without (CDOT’s) help. : Right now, it’s very tight funding statewide. For us to get in the line, it’s probably going to take a new source of funding from the state level.”

The Colorado Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel identified five new sources of funding, which it estimates would generate $1.5 billion, in its January report. Most would require voter approval, including an increase of the gas tax. The transportation panel estimates that a 13-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax could generate $351 million. Mitsch Bush said the political will has not yet existed to implement such an increase, a fact not helped by an economy perceived as declining.

“I think at this time, with the economy slowing down, (Ritter is) not looking forward to raising taxes,” Shelton said.

Another option – that the panel said could raise $500 million and would not require voter approval – is to add a new, annual, $100 “state highway maintenance fee” to the cost of registering a vehicle. Krawzoff has concerns about this option.

“In the near term, it’s possible that the state Legislature wouldn’t implement a vehicle registration fee,” Krawzoff said. “These fees are always politically sensitive.”

Krawzoff also is skeptical that $500 million would be enough to move the state beyond “fix-it-first” operations – and Steamboat would be competing with more populated regions for any new revenues. Krawzoff said improvements needed on Interstate 25 in Denver alone could cost $500 million.

Mitsch Bush said it is crucial for Western Slope officials to remind their Front Range colleagues that roads west of the Continental Divide are important for everyone in the state.

“Northwest Colorado, even though it doesn’t have anything close to the population (of the Front Range), is ground zero for energy, tourism and agriculture,” Mitsch Bush said. “We have to have a viable multi-modal transportation system both for carrying the goods and the people.”

Both Eller and Mitsch Bush said Steamboat is doing the right thing by putting its money and resources into studies looking toward the eventual expansion of U.S. 40. If new money does become available, Eller said, Steamboat’s efforts would put the city in a good position to receive a funding boost.

– To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210

or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com