Plain talk on Colorado's budget: Will General Fund have to start paving Colorado's roads?
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Did you go on a vacation this summer? If so, how were the roads?
We've noticed there's hardly a need for signs telling us when we're leaving or entering Colorful Colorado. The roads tells us, and not in a good way. Drive out of Colorado in any direction – into Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico or Oklahoma – and chances are the road improves as soon as you cross the state line.
Colorado has 9,156 miles of highway. They connect farmers to markets, manufacturers to buyers, workers to jobs, and all of us to the natural wonders of this great state. If our roads don't work, we don't work (or play, for that matter).
But Colorado is falling behind on maintaining its highways, let alone building new ones. Why? Because the cash funds we rely on for roads have not kept pace.
Earlier, we told you General Fund is shrinking due to factors that permanently reduce revenues and that health care is taking up more of what's left. Last week we told you what this has meant for our colleges and universities – an almost 50 percent decline in state support per student (adjusted for inflation) in a decade and a growing dependence on tuition from Colorado families.
So even while General Fund is having trouble meeting his existing obligations, we may soon ask him to help pick up the tab for highways as well.
Colorado's highways are pretty amazing. They cross prairies and passes, cantilever over rivers and go straight through mountains. Snowplows keep most of them open year round. This is no ordinary state, and it took a lot to build such a diverse system. To get the job done, the legislature raised the gas tax from time to time to keep pace with construction costs and growth.
But since we passed the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights in 1992, our gas tax has stayed put at 22 cents per gallon. And yet cars keep getting more efficient and construction costs keep rising faster than inflation (an average 6.4 percent annual increase from 1992 through 2009). The net effect is that the purchasing power of gas tax revenues declined almost 60 percent.
But while we are paying less, we are driving a lot more. In 1990 we drove a total of 17.7 billion miles on our highways. That increased to 27.4 billion miles in 2009 and is projected to reach almost 45 billion miles by 2035.
That's a lot more wear and tear on our highways, and they are getting worse. Today, 48 percent of the system is in "good" or "fair" condition (the remaining 52 percent is in "poor" condition). The Colorado Department of Transportation projects that, if nothing changes, only 20 percent of our highways will be in "good" or "fair" condition 14 years from now (the other 80 percent will be in "poor" condition).
The other major source of funding for state highways comes from the federal Highway Trust Fund, supported by the federal gas tax (now at 18.4 cents per gallon). That comes up for reauthorization at the end of September, and according to a recent article in the Denver Post, it is not clear whether anti-tax crusaders will let that happen without a fight. Some are saying the federal government should get out of the business of funding highways and leave it to the states. If that were to happen, Colorado would have to find roughly $400 million more each year to make up the difference – not an easy task in a state where all tax increases must be approved by the voters.
What does all this mean for General Fund? It's not exactly clear. In the past the Legislature has turned to General Fund to help make up for shortfalls, and it might do so again. Under a law passed in 2009, he's already obligated to contribute 2 percent of his revenues to transportation for five years, starting as soon as the state economy is growing by 5 percent or more a year. Certainly the pressure to continue making that contribution – and even increase it – will be significant if we don't find another solution.
So add one more item to our fiscal to-do list: either increase the state gas tax or find another stable source of revenue to fund our highway and other transportation needs. Until we accomplish that task, look for General Fund to be spread even thinner than he already is.
And buckle up for a bumpy ride.
Join the conversation. We want to hear your 2 cents' worth.
What will it mean for our economy and quality of life if only 20 percent
of our highways are in "good" or "fair" condition just 14 years from now?
If the federal government stops funding highways, what would that mean
for a large state like Colorado, with lots of rural roads but not many people?
If we aren't able to increase the gas tax,
what other sources of funding would you support?
Email PlainTalk@BellPolicy.org and let us know how you answer these questions.