Tired of a decade’s worth of chronic legislative underfunding of transportation infrastructure, Independence Institute* President Jon Caldara drafted a ballot initiative titled “Fix Our Damn Roads” that requires the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to issue $3.5 billion in bonds no later than July 1, 2019 to do so.
The Colorado Secretary of State approved the measure, now known as Proposition 109, onto the 2018 ballot Thursday, Aug. 22. Caldara submitted 169,568 petition signatures, of which 112,872 were deemed valid through a random sampling process. 98,492 valid signatures were required qualify for the ballot.
Caldara says that the measure is necessary because the Legislature can’t seem to prioritize highway maintenance properly these days. “Once we expanded Obamacare in Colorado, that was the end of funding our roads,” he said.
“Fix Our Damn Roads,” now blandly retitled by the state as “Authorize Bonds for Transportation Projects” in an act that Caldara characterizes as “80 percent bureaucratic and 20 percent prudish,” will be in first position for propositions on the ballot.
The measure mandates that the maximum cost of $5.2 billion, paid over 20 years, be repaid without raising taxes or fees. The restriction on raising fees addresses the penchant of the state for using fee increases as a way to circumvent Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) restrictions. The borrowed money and interest are expressly excluded from TABOR.
The $3.5 billion CDOT will have access to must be used for road and bridge expansion, construction, maintenance and repair on 66 projects listed in the initiative. CDOT is prohibited from transferring or using the money for any other purpose, including mass transit or multimodal projects like buses, trains or bike paths. It’s strictly to fix and improve crumbling and inadequate highway infrastructure.
Caldara doesn’t care how the Legislature comes up with the money to pay the carrying costs on the bonds, except that it cannot come from new taxes or fee increases. “It is completely up to the legislature how they wish to come up with the $260 million a year out of their $35 billion budget to do this,” he said.
“There’s more than enough money in the state budget to fix our roads and continue to spend the way they have been,” he continued. “With all the money that’s coming in in excess revenues, including from the change to federal tax law, which is a huge windfall for the state, I don’t think the Legislature is going to have to make any tough decisions to come up with that money.”
But Caldara admits that while Proposition 109 will make a dent in the backlog of needed repairs and improvements, there’s much more money needed to bring the state’s roads and bridges back into repair. “If you talk to CDOT they’ll say that its $9 billion total, on roads it’s like five and a half billion dollars,” he said.
And that’s just to catch up on neglected maintenance and long-planned expansions and improvements for the projects on CDOT’s priority list. “Fix Our Damn Roads brings forth 3.5 billion dollars for CDOT’s top tier road projects that can start immediately,” said Caldara.
It doesn’t include funding for new projects like the I-25 expansion between Castle Rock and Monument that started preliminary construction this week.
Voters will likely have the opportunity to choose between Proposition 109, which does not raise taxes or fees and is dedicated to specific projects and an initiative supported by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce (DMCC) and others that would increase the statewide sales and use tax from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent to pay for $9.4 billion in bonds that would not have to be used to reduce the existing backlog of CDOT projects.
The funds from the DMCC initiative would be allocated as 45 percent for bond repayment and state transportation funding, 15 percent for multimodal transportation and 40 percent for municipal and county transportation projects.
As of Thursday morning, that measure had not been certified onto the ballot.
*Complete Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute.