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State lawmakers want to raise sales tax to pay for transportation needs

Scott Franz
A wall of dirt and rock comes tumbling down a hillside on Colorado Highway 131 in between Steamboat Springs and Oak Creek. The Colorado Department of Transportation was widening and improving a three-mile stretch of highway in Oak Creek Canyon.
John F. Russell

— Northwest Colorado’s two state legislators have often found themselves in opposites lanes and legislatively ‘honking’ at each other on transportation bills.

But today, State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush and State Sen. Randy Baumgardner are carpooling on what could be the biggest, most impactful piece of state transportation legislation in years.

Mitsch Bush, a Steamboat Springs Democrat, and Baumgardner, a Republican from Cowdrey, are both sponsors of a bipartisan bill that would seek to increase the state sales tax as part of a plan to raise billions of dollars for state transportation funding.

The bill is being hailed by some as a sort of grand compromise that could help solve the state’s growing transportation funding crisis.

On the other hand, it has quickly garnered opposition from some conservatives who are against a tax increase to support transportation.

If the legislation advances, voters will have the final say.

If passed, the .62 percent state sales tax increase would generate an estimated $702 million annually in additional transportation funding beginning in 2018.

“It’s (going to support) everything from fixing potholes to dealing with congestion,” Mitsch Bush said.

As part of a compromise, annual vehicle registration fees would be cut by an estimated $75 million.

Factoring in the use of some existing revenues, the proposal would ultimately create a net gain of $677 million in additional transportation revenues annually.

Mitsch Bush said the additional revenue would be used in three ways.

About $350 million of the new revenue would be used to bond and pay for tier 1 Colorado Department of Transportation projects around the state. (Think additional lanes on Interstate 70 in the mountains and larger, more impactful projects along highways and interstates.)

In Northwest Colorado, some examples of these tier 1 projects include the addition of shoulders and passing lanes on Colorado Highway 13 and U.S. 40 east and west of Kremmling.

This chunk of new money from the sales tax increase could be used to bond as much as $3.5 billion worth of projects, statewide.

A new oversight committee with representation from around the state would oversee the funding process and help keep the system accountable and transparent, Mitsch Bush said.

About 70 percent of the remaining annual revenue increase would go to city and county governments for local transportation projects, and 30 percent of the remaining money would go to a multimodal transportations options fund and support such things as paratransit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

“I feel really good about this bill,” Mitsch Bush said. “It has something for everyone in the state. Rural. Urban. And local control is a key part of the bill. We worked so hard on this.”

Baumgardner was in and out of meetings Thursday and wasn’t available to discuss the legislation with Steamboat Today.

Mitsch Bush said she thinks the bill is coming to the forefront, because transportation funding has gotten to a crisis point.

“It used to be when you did surveys of people across the state and asked them what their top three issues were, transportation never came up,” she said. “It just wasn’t up there. It’s only been in the last couple of years that you start to see in these surveys that transportation is really important. And constituents are starting to get a hold of their representatives.”

State Transportation Chairwoman Kathy Connell, of Steamboat, said she was excited to see a bipartisan proposal coming out of the legislature.

But she added the commission and CDOT have not yet adopted a position.

“We don’t have a position yet, other than excitement that they’re looking at it,” she said. “The devil is always in the details.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10


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