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Vehicles drive on U.S. 24 in between 31st Street and 26th Street in Colorado Springs. As population expands in El Paso County and traffic along the corridor increases, long-term solutions for U.S. 24 might require state funds. A transportation bill that has passed the state senate could provide some funding for U.S. 24, Colorado Highway 94 and Powers Boulevard.

A pending state bill that could raise more than $5 billion for roads, bridges and other infrastructure over 10 years could help ease congestion in Colorado Springs, but local lawmakers have concerns about how the bill is funded and new environmental reviews of road capacity projects.  

Mayor John Suthers described the bill as the best state attempt he's seen at addressing transportation needs after years of neglect and noted that city, county and regional funds cannot cover the "phenomenally" expensive improvements state highways within the city need. 

"We are going to have to have a serious infusion of state and federal money," he said. 

Senate debates transportation bill

At the same time, some El Paso County Republicans have been critical of the bill because it includes significant funding for other infrastructure priorities aside from roads and raises money through fees, sidestepping voter approval. A vague new environmental review process could also potentially shut down locally funded road projects, if it's not revised, said city Councilman Wayne Williams. 

Suthers said he expects Senate Bill 260 to fund improvements to U.S. 24, Colorado Highway 94 and Powers Boulevard, which is also a state highway. CDOT has already prioritized a $44 million new overpass to allow Research Parkway to cross over Powers. In the long-term CDOT would like Powers to be an expressway from Interstate 25 to the Colorado Springs Airport and the agency expects to study the long-term improvements the corridor needs, he said.    

Long-term solutions for U.S. 24 may require local funds

The new bill that has passed the state senate would allow for long-term planning because it creates sustainable revenue streams, he said. 

If the bill passes, the city could also see $7 million in new direct funding through the highway users tax fund, which typically brings in about $17 million, he said. The boost in direct funding could help the city provide matching dollars sometimes required to get grant funding, Suthers said. New matching funds could be well timed because the federal government is expected to pass a large infrastructure bill later this year. 

El Paso County and other cities would also receive a proportionate share of the new funding directly, said Andrew Gunning, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments. The council works on issues that affect 16 local cities and counties. 

While the funding is badly needed, particularly to maintain and expand state highways, the council is concerned about a vague provision in the bill that would require a new environmental review process for projects that would increase road capacity, he said. The review may take into account models of the number of miles vehicles are traveling or how fast the miles people spend on the road is increasing, he said. If the area does not meet its targets, the council is worried projects, including those funded through local taxes such as the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority would not be allowed, he said. 

A rule making process through the Air Quality Control Commission could sort out the specifics later this year if the bill passes, he said. 

Williams said local advocacy is underway to fix the provision so it doesn't block projects voters have approved. The premise behind the rule also seems to rely on a theory that if the state doesn't build a road traffic won't increase. 

"We’ve tried not building roads in Colorado for decades and people still come," he said. 

Many Republicans have also been critical of how much the bill relies on fees to meet transportation needs.

The bill includes fees on deliveries, passenger rides, electric vehicle registrations and short-term vehicle rentals and gas and diesel fuel that will ratchet up over time. 

The fees will feed into four new enterprises set up by the state as a way to work around proposition 117 passed in November that requires voters to approve any new fees expected to bring in more than $100 million in the first five years, El Paso County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez said. 

While the approach is legal it violates the spirit of the recently passed law, he said. 

"It willfully circumvents the will of the people," he said. 

He said he also believes the bill spends too much money on multimodal infrastructure and electrification of the transportation sector when the real priority should be improving roads. For example in the first fiscal year, the new Community Access Enterprise, dedicated to increasing adoption of electric cars and boosting public transit, would receive $19 million, according to the state documents. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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