Colorado Ski Traffic

In this Sept. 8, 2017, time-exposure photo, the sun sets as traffic moves along Interstate 70 west of Denver.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The Colorado Department of Transportation made me aware of that fact in a press release on Tuesday.

At the same time, I was thinking Colorado lawmakers also need to have their eyes on the road in the next few weeks. Amid everything that's going on at the Capitol — a pandemic recovery, a government-backed health insurance policy, police reform, redistricting, gun control — the question of how to fix Colorado roads has a $4 billion answer.

Sure, between 2010 and last year, the General Assembly ponied up an average of $106 million a year, but it was always one-time money that ranged from nothing some years up to $495 million. It's like finding a $20 bill on the way to the store. It's nice when it happens, but you can't stake the groceries on it.

The answer has to be serious, sustained cash flow to do big things, like widen an interstate or build a bullet train. A few hundred million doesn't cut it when your shortcomings are measured in billions.

Who pays? You pay. Who'd ya think?

Taxpayers have to come up with $2.7 billion. The rest is money already in the kitty.

About $430 million is anticipated from the federal stimulus — thanks, Biden — and the state budget would kick in $800 million over 11 years.

How do we get the rest of the new dollars in the deal? Well, sports betting is legal, and the odds are better.

Here's the breakdown as I wrote it down the last time anybody told me anything (it's a moving target):

  • $1.47 billion - 2 cents per gallon of gas starting in 2023 (after the next election), then it goes up every two years by 2 cents until it reaches 8 cents.
  • $499 million - 6 cents per gallon of diesel, increasing 1 cent every two years to cap out at 8 cents. Pay up, rural Colorado.
  • $367 million - existing $50 plus phased-in fee to reach parity to gas tax.
  • $203 million - Per-trip fee on ride shares, such as Uber and Lyft.
  • $1.1 million - fee on deliveries.
  • $17 million - personal car share fee.
  • $70 million - car rental fee.
  • TBD - taxi fee.
  • Someday - an autonomous vehicle fee.

But after all this taxing (fee'ing isn't a word) and spending, all our traffic jams would disappear like hitchhikers, right? Not so fast, that's part of the rub. Highways get a cut, but so does transit with its spotty Colorado history and so does electrification, the pump we'll pay in the future.

Here's where the money goes:

  • $2.5 billion for the Highway Users Tax Fund, the split between the state (60%), county (22%) and municipal (18%) governments. Towns and counties would divide up more than $1 billion.
  • $106 million for areas to cut air quality issues.
  • $366 million for multimodal transportation, which might walking, biking, public transit or carpooling
  • $724 million for electrification, which breaks down to $323 million for charging stations, $320 million in state fleet electrification and $81 million for public transit electrification.

All of this could take a different turn, however, if Joe Biden wins out. The president made me aware that this is national Infrastructure Week.

Biden used the occasion to announce a $2 trillion package to fix roads and bridges and serve up heaping helpings of pork, which Colorado's highways could help consume. President Trump made the same promise, and it went nowhere.

Biden calls his crack at it the American Jobs Plan, and it relies on raising corporate income taxes from 21% to 28% for 15 years. Bear in mind, Trump and Republicans in Congress cut the rate from 35% in 2017.

Look, folks, someone has to pay.

I was listening to a Zoom call with some legislators and county officials from around the state a couple of weeks ago.

A big concern was whether electric vehicles pay their fair share. They don't, not even close. Fifty bucks a year, flat, instead of 32 cents a gallon in gas tax. Thirty bucks go to highways, a whopping 58 cents a week. The rest goes to the state Energy Office. 

That's going to change, eventually. 

Electric car fees will rise some measured against a new fuel-efficient gas vehicle that drives 12,000 miles a year, said Sen. Faith Winter, chair of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, told the county officials who pressed the question.  

A pilot project would figure all that out, eventually. 

“We actually don’t know what you should be paying for the road, so we are looking to the future and we will be testing for that,” Winter said the local officials, referring to EV drivers.

This doesn't seem hard to me. If EVs are just like my gas guzzler, then they should pay a fair share, just like my gas guzzler does.

Bicycles don't chip in anything for transportation. Share the road, not the tab, I suppose. If Democrats want to pass this $4 billion package, the pain train has to stop in every neighborhood. The last plan I saw dodged sacred cows.

I have and will argue highways are money well-spent. Nothing touches more lives than getting around. If you're not rolling, your deliveries are, and so is the rest of the economy that swaths your comfy American life in capitalism.

Nice things aren't free.

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Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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