How We Pay For Roads Will Be Changing Soon!

On November 6th, 2018, Colorado voters rejected propositions 109 and 110. These propositions both advocated for more spending for Colorado highways and bridges.

The failed ballot initiatives place the Colorado Department of Transportation CDOT in an impossible position; maintaining and repairing critical infrastructure without an infusion of funding.

Considering the fast growth of population in Colorado, 600,000 people since 2000, and the love affair that drivers have with their single occupancy vehicle, CDOT cannot consider long postponements to projects planned.

In order to provide a backdrop to how our roads and bridges are funded we need to go back to 1933. In 1933, Colorado began collecting taxes on gas consumption. The collection was a seamless transaction. A vehicle owner buys a gallon of gas and a portion of that charge goes to repairing roads and bridges. Motor fuel revenue is deposited into the Highway Users Tax Fund (HUTF) and from there it is distributed to the State, County and Cities based on a statutory formula.

Current tax rate on fuel is 22 cents for State and 18.4 cents for Federal. The federal tax has not been raised since 1993 and is not indexed for inflation, which increased 64.6% from 1993-2015. The last time Colorado’s fuel tax was adjusted was in 1991.

Reaching CDOT’s “vision” targets for bridges, pavements and maintenance for the next 10 years will lead to a deficit of $3.8 billion dollars without a tax increase.*

So why can’t our legislators take the responsible step to increase revenues by raising the gas tax? Wait for it…yes, it’s TABOR.

Here are the options legislators have to choose from.

1. Continue to ask voters for an increase. This is unlikely to happen since propositions 109 and 110 failed. The popular moderate Governor John Hickenlooper could not sway citizens to make highway and bridges a priority.

2. Spend money from the general fund. Some have suggested using surpluses from the state’s revenues. The problem with this is that those funds may not be there due to the volatility of the markets and economy. Those dollars are best used for lean years like we had in 2007 and 2008, to sustain programs for health care and education and other essential services.

3. Start charging a surcharge or fee on per mile use.

One of the factors that will be facing our law makers is the loss of revenue because of new technologies. The development of battery operated or very efficient gas consuming vehicles will reduce the amount of revenues collected by HUTF fund. This significant reduction will force our law makers to start charging vehicle users per mile to insure that funds are available for road and bridge infrastructure.

Though the collection structure does not fundamentally change, the re-action from the general public can be predictable. They will claim that law makers are monitoring their driving behavior. But the fact will be, the government is just changing how they collect the same amount of monies through a monthly bill you receive versus the traditional payment method of taxation per gallon of gas.

The reality is that we have several changes in the way we drive, pay for driving and how we fund our roads and bridges. Let it be no surprise these changes are coming soon.

*Codot.gov/library/annualreport/transportation-deficit-report2017

Jaime Lewis

Jaime is a transit advisor and advocate for the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition and the Denver Regional Mobility and Access Council

Carol Buchanan