Featured, Peter Blake, Taxes, Transportation

Blake: 'Bustang' grazes on FASTER fees

Collapsing bridges! Giant tire-flattening, axle-busting potholes! Aren’t they the problems that the FASTER bill of 2009 was designed to solve?

They were, at least according to news coverage at the time. But the Colorado Department of Transportation has found another way — legal but wasteful — to spend some of the money.

Senate Bill 9-108 jacked up the “fees” (i.e. taxes not submitted to the public for approval) on vehicle registration an average of $41 per year, increased penalties for late registration payments and raised the state “fee” on car rentals, among other things, in order to keep the transportation infrastructure up to snuff. It was supposed to raise more than $200 million a year.

CDOT, nee the state highway department, historically has been responsible for construction and maintenance of the infrastructure that everyone else used to get around the state. But another 2009 bill authorized the creation of a transit and rail division within CDOT.

That bill said nothing about funding it. But buried deep in the 84 pages of dense boilerplate in the FASTER bill was a brief paragraph authorizing “the investment of highway-derived user fee revenues for multi-modal transportation projects.” A later amendment said such projects should “promote mobility, reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, and energy efficiency.”

That apparently is politically correct, tarted-up newspeak for a state-owned bus line. With that language, CDOT crossed the bright divide between maintaining the infrastructure for the citizenry and using it for its own purposes.

Both 2009 bills were pushed through by the Democratic majority over almost unanimous Republican opposition.

CDOT apparently is itching to become a statewide Regional Transportation District. That’s called mission creep.

The new program, given the snappy western name of “Bustang,” is scheduled to start this spring with 13 new black and purple buses costing $7.3 million, or $561,000 apiece. They have 50 seats and feature restrooms, bike racks, free WiFi, power outlets and USB ports.

CDOT will not be operating the buses with its own employees. It has hired Horizons Coach Lines, which will get about $2 million to $3 million a year to operate the buses. Cost-plus — the new risk-free American capitalism.

CDOT describes Bustang as “Colorado‘s first-ever, state-owned and operated bus system connecting major populations.” Since the state is sponsoring the program, it is expected, perhaps obligated, to lose money.

The routes, to run mainly during peak commuting times, connect Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs and Vail with the redeveloped Union Station complex in Denver.

Bustang will operate one round trip on weekdays along Interstate 70 between Glenwood Springs and Denver Union Station. There will be six round-trips a day along I-25, between Colorado Springs and Union Station, and five a day to and from Fort Collins. Buses will stop at park-and-ride locations on the routes.

The fare will be $10 from Fort Collins, one way; $12 from Colorado Springs; $28 from Glenwood Springs, and $17 from Vail. Discounts are available for the handicapped, seniors over 65 and those who buy multi-trip packages.

“I was kind of shocked they were doing that,” said Corey Watson, a former cab driver who now runs Front Range Shuttle. He recalled that there recently was another bus operation connecting Colorado Springs and Denver. It was subsidized not by the state but by the city of Colorado Springs, which somehow enjoys the reputation of being pro-free enterprise even though it has a municipally owned utility and subsidizes bus operations.

Front Range Express, or FREX, ran from 2004 to 2012, when new Springs Mayor Steve Bach pulled the plug because it was losing so much money. Some of its buses had to be sold at a large loss in 2010 to keep it going the last two years.

It’s an odd time to start a state-subsidized transportation project. It’s not as though there aren’t already bus or van lines serving those communities. Greyhound is long past its prime but is still around. Watson’s Front Range Shuttle runs vans between Colorado Springs and Denver International Airport. SuperShuttle runs vans from Fort Collins to DIA. Colorado Mountain Express, with 250 vehicles, offers service between DIA and major ski areas like Aspen, Vail, Keystone and Copper Mountain.

If there was a demand, and if there was a legal opportunity, these companies or others could and would serve, at no cost to the taxpayers, the routes that Bustang will be subsidized to handle.

It’s worth noting that local transportation is alleged to be swimming in “too much” competition, with the taxi companies complaining about the onslaught of Uber and Lyft. They are “transportation network companies” that connect riders with limousines or private vehicles through smartphone apps.

Intercity transport could be just as competitive if it were allowed to be. There would be no need for the state itself to insert itself into the business.

John Dawsey of Colorado Mountain Express said he isn’t too worried about Bustang yet, since it is running only one round trip a day up his way, at least at the start. Be also made this interesting point: Most shuttles that run to Denver from out of town go to the airport because that puts them under federal regulation. They are considered an extension of flights from out of state and thus part of interstate commerce.

The feds don’t regulate entry into the field. But if shuttles go to Union Station they would fall under the PUC because they would be intrastate. It’s much thornier getting PUC authorization.

Laws or rules should be liberalized to make sure private shuttle services can serve places in Denver other than DIA without needing a PUC say-so.

Meanwhile, the Bustang project is evidence that governments can’t help raiding gas taxes and other automobile-based revenues for purposes not related to highway maintenance. It happens in Washington too, with Congress raiding federal gasoline tax revenues for mass transit and other pet projects.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes every other Thursday for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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