Transportation is top Colorado State Senate priority | SteamboatToday.com

Transportation is top Colorado State Senate priority

Jim Patterson

Steamboat Pilot & Today

— Though a number of important issues await state legislators as they prepare for the first regular session of the 71st Colorado General Assembly, set to convene Jan. 11 in Denver, the top area of concern with leadership in both the state House of Representatives — controlled by Democrats — and the state Senate — controlled by Republicans — is finding a way to fund transportation issues in the face of an estimated $500 million shortfall in state budget projections.

And, while the two parties have differing ideas about how to address the issues, both agree that the need is dire and finding bipartisan solutions will be key during the upcoming session.

Incoming State Senate President Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, said Thursday he expects legislators in both houses to approach the problem in a bipartisan, collaborative manner.

"Two of the biggest (issues), and it's really no surprise … is the issue of transportation funding and infrastructure and the construction defects issue," Grantham said. "So those will probably be two of the main things that we'll be looking at, at least from the Senate side, and I think also in partnership with the House."

Grantham said he agreed with statements made last month by incoming Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, who identified funding shortfalls and millions of dollars in backlogged projects as the main obstacles to developing a workable statewide transportation plan.

But while Duran — and incoming House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs — said they favored voter-approved tax initiatives to fund specific projects, Grantham said the Senate is still looking at bonds as a viable funding mechanism.

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"Oh, certainly," Grantham said when asked if he agreed with Duran's assessment of the funding challenges. "When you start talking about billions of dollars of projects that are sitting out there waiting to be done, how do you pay for that? Well, unless you take a hatchet to certain parts of the budget, you're going to have to bond that money."

He acknowledged, however, that bond issues require a revenue stream dedicated to debt service, and that part of the puzzle, he said, is still in the works. Legislators are considering a number of possibilities, he added.

"In talking with the incoming speaker and others within my own caucus and across the aisle, we're trying to look at a whole bevy of things that might come to bear to give us that revenue stream," he said.

State Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Granby, incoming chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, agrees with the bond approach to transportation. Reached Thursday for comment, Baumgardner said he already plans to introduce a transportation bonding bill during the upcoming session, his third such attempt in as many years.

"What the legislation would do is start with the priority list the Colorado Department of Transportation, the state Transportation Commission and others have put together, fund those projects and get them done," Baumgardner said. He added that, according to CDOT estimates, the state falls $1 billion behind each year in deferred transportation needs.

"I'm not sure that's accurate, but the need is definitely urgent," he said. "So, we're looking at ways to secure a sustainable funding source and make sure these projects are complete once they're begun."

In terms of the needed revenue stream, Baumgardner said he plans to take another look at the transportation funding mechanism put into place by 2009's SB228, which ties transfers from the general fund to transportation and capital construction to personal economic growth numbers.

"It's a very volatile funding stream," Baumgardner said, adding that he supports a repeal of SB228 and replacement with "a secure funding source out of the general fund."

"We need a steady, reliable funding stream, and that's what my bill does," he said.

Though he acknowledged this might mean reallocating funds from other areas, he added that, whenever possible, operating within the existing budget is crucial.

"It's a priority to live within our means," Baumgardner said.

Grantham, too, acknowledged the possibility of finding transportation revenues within the existing budget.

"We're looking at existing money, to some extent," Grantham said. "We may not be willing to take a hatchet to the state budget in order to carve out $3.5 billion but maybe we can take a scalpel to (it)."

Both acknowledged that finding a lasting, comprehensive solution to Colorado's transportation needs is a complex issue that will require bipartisan buy-in, and both said the issue can’t be ignored any longer.

"There's a lot of conversation going on to find a solution, and we need to find a solution," Baumgardner said. "I'll continue to champion this issue, because it's vital to all Coloradans. If you can't get there, what's the point of anything else?"

To reach Jim Patterson, call 970-871-4208, email jpatterson@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JimPatterson15