highway in Glenwood Canyon

Interstate 70 bridges in Glenwood Canyon.

Maybe it’s because Charles Ashby and I are curmudgeons, trolls beneath the bridge of Capitol discourse, but it is what it is. When transportation leaders from across the state opened the virtual floor for questions Tuesday morning, my favorite Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reporter and I were the first two in line and with questions of the same raspy timbre: Why should we believe in the General Assembly now?

Ashby pointed out all the sales pitches he’s heard in his geezery 25 years at the statehouse: fees replace the taxes voters won’t pass, economic development suffers, traffic jams literally stink and the list goes on.

But on Tuesday Colorado Concern brought the best argument that cheapskates like me might buy: we’re wasting our lives and treasure behind the wheel, time away from work and family, buying extra gas and new tires to rub salt in the wound. Everybody pays taxes, but the extra car costs come straight out of the driver's checking account.

Colorado drivers are getting kicked in the bucket seats.

In Denver you’ll pay $1,242 and spend 62 hours in traffic burning 26 gallons of fuel if things stay the same, according to a new report from the Traffic Research Information Program. On top of that, throw in $732 a year for repairs.

“If those previous arguments weren’t good enough, and they were good arguments, what makes you think that argument is better?” asked Charles.

The legislature will hear that argument and weigh its effectiveness soon, if they haven’t already. Colorado Concern is part of a campaign called A Way Forward, a coalition of civic and business leaders from across the state who are tired of waiting.

The curmudgeon from the other side of the Continental Divide went on, “I don’t think this is going to happen.” Consider Ashby has deconstructed Colorado highway bills since about half of the state House was in grade school. I’m not making that up.

Nobody outside a tight loop of majority caucus problem solvers knows what might happen next. It’s a cliffhanger.

A funding bill is expected to land in the General Assembly in a matter of days, this week or next, I’m guessing, but no one can yet forecast how lawmakers will come up with another $500 million annually to cover Gov. Jared Polis’ 10-year plan. And Jared tends to get what Jared wants.

I made the rounds with transportation insiders, including a couple of informed legislators, over the last week to see what they knew about what's to come, and they don’t know anything, either. This plan is so close to the vest it might as well be a chest tattoo.

The issue is whether to ask voters to approve a transportation tax in November, as a bunch of other states have passed, or allow the legislature to create a “fee” on a gallon of gas. The consequential play on words is brought to you by the Colorado Constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Either way you pay.

If they want to pass a gas tax, yeah, good luck with that. They can say hello to all the other losers when they get there. Colorado voters have been a clear no on ponying up more for gas and diesel to pay for roads and bridges. Electric vehicles, the evident wave of the future, need to pay a share, too, or we’re headed for a funding pothole the size of Mesa County.

Statehouse Republicans, normally the champions of transportation investments, are in a box with the walls closing in as soon as the bill drops. They're convinced we're not getting all we pay for out of construction projects. One told me Wednesday the state highway department is more like a money-handling middleman than a road builder these days, and a lot of big-dollar coins can get lost in the contractual couch cushions.

Americans for Prosperity is mounting a campaign against a hike in both taxes or fees, rolling out polling last week that indicates public opposition in Senate districts occupied by the champions of the proposals. The similarly lean Independence Institute is against it, too. That's a one-two gut punch for libertarian-minded lawmakers who want to get some roads fixed.

Democrats are in a different box, clinging to tax dollars for education and social programs, hoping for a bail out from the federal stimulus. If you're a Colorado Democrat, there's never been a better time to drag your feet.

Late last week much of the state’s congressional delegation spoke up on a call with Northern Colorado business leaders.

My friend Sandra Hagen Solin, the superb lobbyist for transportation pleaders, said Colorado's stinginess ironically could endanger its chances at federal aid, if lawmakers can't or won't pony up the matching money, "skin in the game," she called it.

Sen. Michael Bennet was blunt, "These grants are competitive and the hitch is that that local match makes the grant application more competitive."

Rep. Joe Neguse weighed in, too: "It's a broader indication that as a state we're going to have to make some decisions and have some conversations about what kind of state we want to be and are we willing to make investments in community goods, like highways and roads and bridges."

So, great, add an existential crisis to the list.

If they have no other reason — they have plenty —  lawmakers can win the day by proving two old sourpusses in the press corps to have a little faith in them and figure this out and fix our roads.

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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