Over the last few years, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has had a habit of playing fast and loose with the taxpayers’ money, and setting their own priorities regardless of what those of Coloradans might be. In part, CDOT is able to get away with this because its governing body, the Colorado Transportation Commission, is appointed entirely by the governor, with the approval of the State Senate.
In 2019, an audit found that “Budget-to-actuals analysis cannot be performed for nearly $1.3 billion — about 80 percent — of the department’s approved budget…” This resulted in precisely none of the commissioners overseeing CDOT tendering their resignations. Now, the state auditor is looking into possible favoritism towards and out-of-state contracting company. The commissioners have lost control of the department.
Now, the commissioners also appear to have lost touch with the citizens whose money they’re spending.
This past December, they voted to adopt a rule that could end up redirecting billions of dollars from roads and highways towards inefficient boutique “green” transit. It would also encourage denser housing, limiting people’s ability to buy single-family homes. The new rule even manages to work “equity” into the mix, echoing questionable arguments made by federal Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
In short, the commissioners have unilaterally rewritten their charter to turn themselves from custodians of the state’s roads, highways, and bridges into the state’s centralized urban planners, helping to determine local land use, and enslave the suburbs and exurbs to the major cities’ urban cores.
CDOT wouldn’t be the first transportation agency to decide that it would be a lot easier to maintain roads without all those pesky cars trying to use them. Whether or not it would be safer is another matter. My friend Monica Showalter recently described how Pittsburgh decided to fund bike lanes instead of repairing visibly at-risk bridges, one of which just collapsed: “Instead of repairing the bridge with what likely would have been the Obama-era, shovel-ready 2009 infrastructure funds for ‘roads and bridges,’ known as the ‘American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,’ the cash went to bike lanes and green boondoggles, and too bad about the actual structure that was decaying and deteriorating.”
This negligence is just one of a long line of misdirection of federal money. Now Secretary Buttigieg is here to add to the list. The “infrastructure” bill gave his department discretion over a slush fund of somewhere between $100 billion and $200 billion of the appropriations. It’s clear even now where that money is headed, and it’s not to widen I-70 to Vail.
CDOT will also overtly push for what it euphemistically calls “more efficient land use,” i.e., cramming more people into condos and apartments while discouraging building single-family homes. This both subsidizes more building in Denver and limits the out-of-city options for people who would like a house of their own in the suburbs. You may have left Denver because of its poor governing choices, but you’ll still be forced to send money back to it to compensate.
Even if you don’t think this is a terrible way to run a state, how is this the business of CDOT?
All of this goes back to a long betrayal of one of our most important founding principles – that legislatures should ultimately be in charge of how money is spent. In this case, that principle is being betrayed on both the federal and state levels. At the federal level, Congress has giving Buttigieg a “slush fund” of somewhere between $100 million and $200 million to dispense of as he sees fit. At the state level, CDOT will be able to apply for funds for projects fitting the governor’s favored politics.
Note what has happened here – an appointed board has reoriented transportation priorities away from roads and bridges and towards “green” projects, and injected race politics into the process, as well. If the citizens want to undo this, the need to elect a new governor, and wait until the appointees’ terms expire.
Unfortunately, last Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee passed on an opportunity to rein in this runaway department. Sen. Ray Scott (R-Mesa) had proposed a bill that would have changed the Transportation Commission from an appointed board to an elected one, with the commissioners tied to congressional districts.
The bill would have likely guaranteed at least some ideological diversity. Amusingly, CDOT itself argued with a straight face that having the governor appoint commissioners guaranteed a non-partisan board, an argument that, not surprisingly, resonated with the Democrat majority as they killed the bill on a party-line vote.
At this point, the only way of getting CDOT back in its box is to put such a measure on the ballot, or to elect a governor who will replace the current commissioners with ones less besotted by their own power.
Catalytic converter bill update:
A previous column covered Senate Bill 22-009, intended to address the wave of catalytic converter thefts in Colorado. I was particularly exercised by two provisions, one of which would have allowed the state’s consumer-hostile Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) to set statewide standards for catalytic converters, and the other of which would have prohibited installation of any converter that did not meet that standard.
Taken together, these sections would have greatly limited the supply of converters, making life more expensive for some of those hardest-hit by the thefts. I’m pleased to report that in committee, those two provisions were struck out on amendment; hopefully it stays that way. Much can still be done to reduce the crime wave, starting with taking seriously the enforcement of our laws, and I hope the legislature takes that up.
Joshua Sharf is a senior fellow in fiscal policy at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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