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Those who want to fix Colorado road woes cast hopeful eye toward Washington

January 21, 2017 Updated: January 22, 2017 at 5:47 pm
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Drivers cruise along I-25 Thursday, October 8, 2015 near Larkspur. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

They celebrated the inauguration of President Donald Trump in Washington on Friday, but in Colorado - where many are waiting to see if campaign promises on infrastructure, including transportation, come true - they aren't yet popping the champagne.

Trump has declared that America's infrastructure will be "second to none." Colorado's infrastructure isn't even the best in the Four Corners.

The president could bring seismic shift on many issues here - from immigration to energy and trade deals to drug policy - but his promise to invest $550 billion into transportation carries heavy weight in the Colorado statehouse.

Legislators are trying to find money for up to $9 billion in transportation needs, particularly stretches of Interstate 25 north of Monument and Denver and the Interstate 70 mountain corridor.

They are hopeful that Trump in Washington might represent a rich uncle for Colorado traffic jams.

Legislators have vowed to find a solution in the session that ends in May, so the Trump factor may come later.

"It will be at least a year before we see meaningful discussions about transportation at the federal level," said Sandra Hagen Solin, the leader of Fix Our Roads, the statewide organization pushing the issue hardest at the Capitol.

"In the meantime, it's imperative that the state be prepared for those conversations, because invariably there will be a requirement for matching grants, matching dollars to meet whatever dollars become available for the state."

Optimism and pessimism

Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, is no fan of Trump, but said she's both optimistic and pessimistic on what he could do for Colorado roads and bridges, if he keeps his word.

Mitsch Bush has a high regard for Elaine Chao, Trump's pick of transportation secretary who served as George W. Bush's labor secretary.

"We'll have to see," Mitsch Bush said. "We'll have to see what kind of money we get. Meanwhile, it's imperative for us to get a ballot issue in front of the people of Colorado to increase transportation funding.

"Having a new source of transportation funding, new revenue, would be critical."

Mitsch Bush said the last four governors, Democrats and a Republican, have had committees looking for that funding "under the cushions, because surely it's there" and it's not there.

Don Hunt, state highway director in Gov. John Hickenlooper's first term, said history isn't on the side of getting hopes up for a windfall from Washington.

"It's pretty reasonable to be skeptical about the federal government really doing something bold in infrastructure," he said.

He pointed to Republicans in measuring the political odds.

"If you really have over half the Congress that does not believe we should raise taxes in any form in order to support new infrastructure construction, it's going to be a big challenge," Hunt said.

Can he deliver, politically?

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, said it's not time to write Trump's infrastructure promise off as hot air from the summer campaign trail.

"At one level it makes sense; he's a nationalist figure, he wants to make America great again, and when you talk about airports and roads and transportation infrastructure, those are things people see and are a visual sign of what America looks like" Teske said.

He said enough people have traveled to Europe and Asia to know what modern infrastructure in transportation looks like, and could hold Trump to his professed second-to-none standard.

Foremost, Trump will have to prove he can navigate the Capitol Hill politics to pay for it, Teske said.

"Are the deficit hawks, Republicans in Congress, going to keep to a revenue-neutral kind of approach to this or ... are they going to be willing to go along?"

A Republican in the White House could soften hard-line fiscal conservatives' opposition, as it has in the past, Teske said.

Trump has touted a plan to use public-private partnerships to speed the pace.

Tapping more private money

Trump has touted a plan to offer $137 million in federal tax credits to investors who back transportation projects to raise up to $1 trillion worth of infrastructure investment over 10 years.

Normally, such projects are funded by states and local governments matching federal highway funds to repay bonds.

Hunt said that's the sole part of Trump's transportation plan that he has made public.

"I think the advisers of President Trump really support the idea of more public-private partnerships and, on infrastructure, it probably will be the only thing that can be done in the short term," Hunt said.

He said Trump could raise a lot of money by going after taxes lost from American companies sheltering their profits abroad.

"The Colorado General Assembly has some of the same challenges as the U.S. Congress. There are those who believe taxes should not be raised for any reason whatsoever, even for infrastructure investment, so I think it's difficult to find that spot where everyone can agree."

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