Taxes

SB 48: Colorado road taxes for local transit unjust and unconstitutional

“Current law authorizes the department of transportation to spend a portion of its highway users tax fund moneys on transit-related projects,” states the summary of Colorado Senate Bill 13-048. Revenue from the highway users tax fund (HUTF) includes the 22-cents-per-gallon fuel tax and vehicle registration fees. The summary continues: “The bill similarly authorizes counties and municipalities to spend moneys that they receive from the highway users tax fund on transit-related projects.”

This is bad policy for several reasons.

1. The current law the bill refers to is unconstitutional, as this bill would be.

Article X, Section 18 of the Colorado Constitution states that, “the proceeds from the imposition of any license, registration fee, or other charge with respect to the operation of any motor vehicle upon any public highway in this state and the proceeds from the imposition of any excise tax on gasoline or other liquid motor fuel except aviation fuel used for aviation purposes shall, except costs of administration, be used exclusively for the construction, maintenance, and supervision of the public highways of this state.”

The authors of SB 13-048 try to make it sound constitutional, by claiming that “the funding of such [transit-related] projects constitutes maintenance and supervision of public highways because it will help to reduce traffic on state highways, thereby reducing wear and tear on state highways and bridges and increasing their reliability, safety, efficient performance, and expected useful life.”

But by this logic, the state Constitution allows fuel tax revenue to be used to fund anything that reduces traffic on state highways. For example, would it be constitutional to use fuel tax revenue to subsidize people’s purchase of new computers and fast Internet connections? After all, it might result in more people working from home instead of using the highways.

2. Even if transit projects reduce traffic, this is no justification for forcing drivers to subsidize it. As I wrote recently in the Denver Post: “By such reasoning, government should force drivers to subsidize brakes for tractor-trailers because drivers benefit when huge trucks have functioning brakes.” Just as non-drivers should not subsidize roads (though they currently do), drivers’ taxes should not subsidize other services.

3.  Even if transit projects reduce traffic congestion, they may not do it as efficiently as alternatives. For example, according to a 1997 study published by the Denver Council of Regional Governments (DRCOG), driver delay times on I-70 could be reduced by either adding lanes or by adding light rail or commuter rail. But to achieve the same reduction in delay times, the rail proposals cost between two and four times as much as adding lanes or HOV lanes. (“East Corridor Major Investment Study,” Table 4.7, Chapter 4.)

To reduce congestion, SB13-048 would be far more effective if it required counties to prove that their proposed transit project would reduce traffic congestion more efficiently than road-based alternatives, such as high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, traffic light synchronization, and other methods.

4. SB 13-048 includes the boilerplate safety clause, which is ludicrous. Do the bill’s supporters actually believe that “this act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety,” as Section 6 states? Particularly because SB 13-048 violates (at the least) the spirit of the Constitution, it would be a further sign of disrespect for the Constitution for the legislature to shield the bill from the People’s right to vote on it, especially with an obviously false claim that a pork bill for transit is immediately necessary for public peace, health and safety.

Brian T. Schwartz is senior fellow at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver

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