I25 WIDENING
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Drivers cruise along I-25 Thursday, October 8, 2015 near Larkspur. (Gazette file photo)

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DENVER - The Colorado Department of Transportation has identified $9 billion in unfunded priorities, including widening I-25 between Monument and Castle Rock, measured against a $1.41 billion budget next year.

That budget already is over-burdened with maintenance requests, the highway department told legislative budget writers Thursday.

The lopsided ledger between what the state needs and what it can afford explains why there are daily traffic jams up and down the Front Range, an open-ended time line to drive from the mountains to the city after a Sunday of skiing and why legislators are again ready to duke it out over transportation funding.

CDOT made its case to the sympathetic bipartisan Joint Budget Committee Thursday. But no new solutions were floated.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, said polling shows a gas tax won't fly with the public,

"If we're going to move transportation forward in this state, we're going to have to come up with some creative ideas to make this happen." Baumgardner said. "There have been creative ideas in the past that have not fared well."

Republicans tilt toward borrowing $3.5 billion to pay for a list of high-need projects. Democrats oppose it, saying the money to repay those bonds would come from the highway maintenance fund, which can't afford it.

To balance a tight state budget, Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed cutting the state General Fund's contribution to transportation by 41 percent over the next two years, about $79.5 million a year.

By comparison, Utah spends $600 million solely for expanding roads, according to a CDOT analysis.

Maria Sobota, CDOT's chief financial officer, said about half of the state highway department's budget comes from state and federal gas taxes. The state tax contributes about 23 percent. Vehicle registrations account for about 8 percent, and fees and fines chip in about 8 percent.

Gas tax money, the cash cow, is drying up as newer vehicles get better gas mileage, she said. Hybrid vehicles also are putting a dent in state revenue, Sobota said.

"Although the vehicles that are electric put wear and tear on our roads, they pay less gas tax to do so, which puts constraints on our revenues," she added.

The state hasn't raised the gas tax since 1991, Sobota pointed out.

"A dollar in 1991 is worth approximately 32 cents today," she said. "The department is definitely constrained in the amount of dollars it has in purchasing power today than it did in 1991."

CDOT executive director Shailen Bhatt said the governor's budget request would allow CDOT's Interstate 25 widening project north of Denver to continue and keep federal highway matching grants.

"I think there's a disconnect in Colorado in what people want and what we have money for," Bhatt said.

With the proposed $1.41 billion budget, CDOT must maintain about 3,500 bridges and 23,000 lane miles, as well as plow 6.1 million miles per year, including 35 mountain passes, along with a division of transit and rail, he said.

"CDOT does not have robust revenue sources for expansion," Sobota added. "We have really become a maintenance organization."

Bhatt said the state has identified $9 billion in pending unfunded priorities that includes 130 highway projects, transit, operations and some bike paths over the next 10 years.

From those, the highest priorities account for $2.5 billion - about $1 billion for widening I-25 to the south and north of Denver, a peak-period shoulder lane west of Denver into the mountains, adding climbing lanes and widening parts of U.S. 50.

"There's $2.5 billion in projects we could get started on right now, but we just don't have the funding," Bhatt said.

He said if the money was presented, CDOT would provide a schedule for each project "so that Coloradans would have certainty around the delivery of these projects."

Incoming Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, said in an interview Thursday that he's wide open to a workable solution to fund roads.

Nothing has been simple about the ideas that have been presented so far, he said.

"Every problem that's part of the solution has a dozen other problems that go with it," he said. "And that's before you get to the party differences we're going to have to navigate."

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