Steamboat’s Kathy Connell appointed chair of Colorado Transportation Commission
Steamboat Springs — Kathy Connell’s colleagues on the Colorado Transportation Commission are eager to see Connell bring her strong energy and “no nonsense” attitude to the commission’s leadership post next month.
“We’re all looking forward to it,” fellow transportation commissioner Shannon Gifford said Wednesday. “I think she’ll be terrific.”
As chair, Connell will lead the commission that decides how the state should spend money on transportation projects.
Connell was promoted by her peers on the commission.
The coming years are poised to be challenging for the group because the state has identified more transportation needs than it currently has funding for.
Connell, who was appointed to the commission four years ago by Gov. John Hickenlooper, said Tuesday she has the personality for such a challenging task.
She added she is looking forward to the things the commission and the state can accomplish.
As a child, Connell said she relished accomplishing things people told her she couldn’t.
And as a member of the state’s transportation commission, she continues to use her “prove you wrong” attitude to the benefit of the state’s drivers.
“That part of me hasn’t gone away,” Connell said in her Steamboat Springs office as she reflected on the years she has already served on the commission and looked ahead to the years she will continue to serve.
Connell, who refers to herself as “chatty Kathy” and a regular “Joette,” clearly has enjoyed her time on the commission and feels she has been an effective representative of Northwest Colorado.
Connell said her can-do attitude came in handy when she and the commission advanced such seemingly undoable projects as widening the second Twin Tunnel near Idaho Springs sooner rather than later.
“When I came on the commission at first, they were only going to do one tunnel” because of funding limitations, Connell said. “I said, ‘let’s get the biggest bang for our buck.’ We had a contractor there who had already learned the area. We were going to save millions. I pushed hard for the second tunnel to get done.”
Steamboat Today sat down with Connell, a former Steamboat Springs City Council member, Tuesday to discuss her time on the commission, transportation issues and what she’s looking forward to in the coming years.
On her priorities as chair
“With not enough funds, we’re trying to get as many maintenance and road improvement projects out on the road as we can,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
She said her vision as chair is to “somehow really get more frequent direct contact with our state legislators” and elevate the importance of transportation funding.
Connell, who was vice-chair of the commission before her promotion, has other priorities too.
She said she will continue to push for improvements that will make the ride from the Front Range to the Western Slope safer and more enjoyable.
She wants to find a way to simplify the commission’s agenda packets so more time can be focused on making the big decisions.
She also wants to see the system the state uses to perform road traffic counts improved.
On funding for transportation
Since she was appointed to the commission, Connell has decried the state’s transportation funding crisis.
According to data recently released by the Colorado Department of Transportation, there are $45.8 billion worth of transportation needs from 2016 to 2040, but only $22.4 billion in projected revenue available to fund them.
Connell said it will be important in the future for the state to find new revenue streams for transportation because of the current funding shortfall.
But she said it wouldn’t be fair to all highway users to only raise the state’s gas tax, which has remained at 22 cents per gallon since 1991 and is not indexed to gasoline prices.
Connell noted that, in recent years, the increased number of fuel-efficient vehicles has resulted in less gas tax revenue.
“We’ve got to look at a toolbox that has multiple chances” of increasing revenue,” she said.
She predicted if people armed with petitions seeking a statewide sales tax for transportation approached drivers stuck in long traffic jams on Interstate 70 in the winter, many would sign it in favor of the additional revenue and improvements.
She said whatever revenue source is proposed, it will be important for proponents to clearly outline what the additional tax would secure and what it would cost citizens.
On the state of Colorado’s roads
No conversation with Connell about transportation issues is complete without a mention of Utah.
“Utah is our competition, and they are kicking our little rear ends,” she said.
“Only 18 percent of Utah’s transportation budget is based on federal funds. And they’ve got shoulders, passing lanes and a phenomenal tranportation system all around Salt Lake City. Wyoming is doing the same thing. We can’t quite seem to get it. I think we need to have more discourse and more involvement with our legislatures about this. That’s going to be one of my goals.”
She called the major safety improvement project underway in Colorado on Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling the most innovative project in the country right now, in part because of how it was funded.
“It puts the money where the mouth is,” she said, noting a big chunk of the project was funded by private donations from citizens and local governments who depend on the road.
On the big picture
Connell pointed to the recent renovation of Union Station in Denver as something that initially seemed unlikely , but was accomplished through determination and strong visioning.
“It took 20 years to put that all together,” she said.
She said the state has to keep the idea of a rail system that goes both north and south and east and west alive, despite a large price tag.
“We just need to continue to figure out how to fund that,” she said. “If Europe can do that and China can do that, we can do that.”
On the past four years on the commission
“What thrills me about being on this commission is learning new things and being able to be effective from learning,” she said. “I wish I had been on this commission before I had been on the Steamboat City Council for eight years. I could have been more effective at that.”
She described her fellow commissioners as “brilliant minds” who come together and make decisions for the good of the entire state.
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