DENVER – If Colorado taxpayers resent the average $40 tax increase on a vehicle registration renewal – and the threat of paying $500 in late fees – levied since 2009 to pay for bridge repairs and road improvements, they might balk at the cost of adding two individuals to the 11-member Transportation Commission to improve oversight of the project funding.
Transportation Legislation Review Committee members are concerned about the status, scope and slow pace of projects moving from the drawing board to the construction phase – mostly funded by the FASTER bill which hiked taxes and late penalties for vehicle registration, add car rental fees, and opened the door to toll roads and bridges.
Committee Vice Chair state Rep. Glenn Vaad (R-Mead) said the Colorado Transportation Commission, appointed by the governor, allots the FASTER funds for construction projects in their districts – but those decisions have too often ignored the statewide transportation system.
The commissioners’ bottom line question is “Will we get our fair share of the capital construction money?” said Vaad, a former Transportation Commission member and Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) employee.
“Everybody is getting what they feel is their fair share or suffering the pain (of not getting enough money),” asserted Vaad. “But the (statewide) system is continuing to deteriorate.”
Of the existing 11-member commission, Governor John Hickenlooper appointed four new members and reappointed seven others, including five previously named by Democrat Governor Bill Ritter and two by Republican Governor Bill Owens.
The commission advises the CDOT on prioritizing projects and expenditures, including projects under the Bridge Enterprise.
Those funds have been “distributed according to who is getting their fair share. We can’t continue down that road,” warned Vaad.
The solutions debated by the state Transportation Review Legislation Committee include adding the two at-large commission members, having the legislature set clear project priorities, and redefining transportation districts to balance rural and urban projects.
Kurt Morrison of CDOT acknowledged that the transportation districts, usually redrawn every decade, have not been studied or adjusted since 1991. The fact that the district populations now range from 60,000 to a half million, he said, is an indication that they need to be evaluated and redrawn.
“We’re laying the groundwork for that now,” Morris assured the Transportation Legislation Review Committee in September. “By 2014, we will request that the legislature re-look at those lines.”
Committee member state Rep. Max Tyler (D-Lakewood) crafted a letter to CDOT Executive Director Donald E. Hunt, asking why $97.8 million of state and federal funds is sitting in CDOT’s coffers instead of being used for construction projects to create jobs and transportation.
His letter, signed by most of the committee, asked:
“What is the department’s plan to accelerate currently funded projects? Are there specific construction projects now planned that can be expedited? What additional resources might be necessary for engineering, project management, or other needs required to accelerate the construction schedule? How can the legislature be a partner to help facilitate any related plans going forward?”
The letter was very diplomatic compared Tyler’s complaints about CDOT at committee meetings during the interim months.
To help the Transportation Commissioners see the big transportation picture – and not just their districts – Vaad crafted a bill to add two at-large commissioners, one from each side of the Continental Divide.
The bill will be sponsored by state Sen.Steve King (R-Grand Junction) and Rep. Kevin Priola (R-Henderson); Vaad ran for the Senate, but lost the primary race to Senator-elect Vicki Marble (R-Fort Collins) who won the general election.
“I appreciate the concept of having at-large members, the only thing I’m struggling with is the geographic distribution,” said state Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village).
The bill would add an at-large member from the Western Slope and another from the Eastern Plains, but Schwartz said that would not provide more representation for rural communities, particularly in Central and Southern Colorado.
Though six of the 11 districts are mostly rural counties, the majority of commissioners live in more urban areas. The exceptions are District 5 Commissioner Kathy Gilliland of Livermore (near Loveland) and District 11 Commissioner Steven Hofmeister of Haxtun.
The other commissioners include District 1 Trey Rogers of Denver, District 2 Edward J. Peterson of Lakewood, District 3 Gary Reiff of Englewood, District 4 Heather Barry of Westminster, District 6 Kathy Connell of Steamboat Springs, District 7 Douglas Aden of Grand Junction, District 8 Steve Parker of Durango, District 9 Les W. Gruen of Colorado Springs and District 10 Gilbert Ortiz, Sr. of Pueblo.
The Transportation Commission’s most recent matrix of projects funded by FASTER in September indicated that 59 projects were completed, 49 were in design or construction phases and 30 have not been entered into the system.
Of those, the most activity reported appears to be in District 10, comprised of Puebloand nine rural counties, and the least amount in District 8 that includes 13 rural counties mostly inSouthern Colorado. This accounting does not factor in construction costs, readiness and critical need – all of which impact the commission’s decisions.
“I’m opposed to this bill. I think 11 members are sufficient,” declared Transportation Legislation Review Committee Chair state Sen. Evie Hudak (D-Westminster).
Morrison said that CDOT will remain neutral on the bill until after a fiscal impact study is completed by legislative services. Members of the Transportation Commission are not salaried, but they do receive a per diem and compensation for travel – and that would be a factor.
The at-large members will add focus on the highway and byways of our state, said King. “It’s not the West slope or the East slope; it’s for the overall health of our state. In my opinion, this bill warrants the consideration of the legislature.”