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El Paso County considering second ballot question on I-25 widening

August 25, 2017 Updated: August 30, 2017 at 5:48 pm
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THORNTON, CO - MARCH 20: Traffic moves along on Interstate 25, near 126th Ave., during the morning rush hour, Thursday, March 20, 2014. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

A second proposal to jump-start the widening of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock with excess local funds could be on the ballot this fall.

El Paso County commissioners are considering a question for the Nov. 7 ballot that would ask voters to allow the county to set aside at least $6 million in excess revenues to help pay for the widening of the 17-mile two-lane stretch, known as the "Gap," to three lanes in each direction.

If the measure makes it onto the ballot, most county voters will see it alongside another question that would clear the way for regional transportation tax revenues to contribute $10 million to the project. The second ballot question, approved by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority Aug. 9, would add the widening to a list of projects that the agency can fund.

The proposed county measure would let the commissioners set aside a total of about $14.5 million to be used on high-priority road improvements, including the I-25 expansion, disaster recovery efforts and county parks projects. Under Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, increases in government revenue are limited to population growth and inflation; any surplus must be returned to taxpayers unless the government gets voters' permission to adjust the cap or use the excess for specific purposes.

Commissioners, who are slated to vote Sept. 5 on whether the question will go to voters, will discuss the issue at the first of two public hearings on Tuesday.

Footing the bill

State transportation officials, who estimate the widening will cost $290 to $570 million, say construction could begin as early as 2019 if the money is available.

"Now is the time to make this happen," said Commissioner Mark Waller. "We need to make sure that if we're asking to have these dollars, we spend them responsibly on things that are critical to the health, safety and enjoyment of El Paso County citizens."

Waller is a member of the newly-formed I-25 Gap Coalition, made up of local leaders from communities along the stretch. He's pushing for El Paso County to contribute another $7.5 million from its general fund next year.

Such pledges are intended to show state and federal funding agencies that local communities have skin in the game, Waller said.

"I think we're going to see other smaller municipalities come to the table as well to contribute local match dollars. That's ultimately going to be what gets this done," he said.

Alternative to a refund

The county's "TABOR excess" would otherwise be returned to citizens through a property tax credit, which would vary based on a property's value. For example, the owner of a $250,000 house would receive a roughly $40 credit, said county spokesman Dave Rose. But critics have called such a refund inherently unfair because renters are not reimbursed.

Colorado Springs, which also exceeded its TABOR revenue limit, will refund ratepayers by crediting city Utilities customers about $13 to $14 each on their electricity bills.

The proposed ballot question would designate up to $6 million of the county's surplus to pay for improvements to roadways including South Academy Boulevard, Marksheffel Road and Meadowbrook Parkway, Chipita Park Road and U.S. 24 and Fountain Mesa Road and Caballero Avenue. Roughly $1 million would become a local match for $3 million in federal disaster recovery funds, kick-starting repairs needed following following 2015 flooding. The New Santa Fe Regional Trail, Willow Springs Ponds, the Bennet Channel, and several trailheads would benefit from the flood repairs.

"These are projects that, frankly, have to get done," Rose said.

About $1.5 million would be funneled into upgrades and repairs to recreational spaces, such as the county's fairgrounds and regional parks and trails.

In 2014, roughly 70 percent of county voters OK'd a question allowing the county to retain about $2 million in excess revenue for parks, trail and open space improvements. The money has helped pay for an expansion of Bear Creek Nature Center, repairs to Black Forest recreation areas following the 2013 fire and the acquisitions of Jones Park and land that will eventually become Elephant Rock Open Space.

Keeping up with economic gains

The proposed ballot question would also reset the county's revenue cap, which dictates how much it can retain in taxes, state dollars and other funding sources. If voters say 'yes,' the base would be raised from roughly $330 million to $345 million to reflect actual revenues garnered by the county in 2017.

Adjusting the base would not affect existing taxes or eliminate any TABOR provisions, Rose said. Instead, it would allow the county to recover in step with the rest of the economy following the Great Recession. The county has been unable to keep up with post-recession economic growth because the limit has prevented the government from keeping extra money to repair infrastructure and replace old equipment. The struggle, compounded by four nationally-declared disasters that rocked the Pikes Peak region, has resulted in a long to-do list of "deferred maintenance" expected to cost nearly $200 million.

"We want the opportunity to rebuild reserves and get back to these backlogs of projects that need to be done." Rose said. "It puts us on the same footing as all of our citizens."

The hearing on the proposed ballot measure will take place during commissioners regular Tuesday meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. at Centennial Hall at 200 S. Cascade Ave.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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