Colorado Rejects Two Transportation Ballot Measures, Elects Jared Polis as Governor

November 8, 2018

On Tuesday’s ballot, Colorado voters faced two opposing statewide transportation measures. Both failed by roughly the same margin in this latest attempt to deal with funding challenges as the state’s transportation infrastructure needs fail to keep pace with its growing population.

Briefly, Proposition 109 (“Fix Our Damn Roads”) would have issued a $3.5 billion bond without imposing new taxes, to be paid back over 20 years to the tune of $260 million per year. Funds would have been directed at building and maintaining roads. 61.3 percent of voters rejected the measure.

Proposition 110 (“Let’s Go Colorado”) would have raised the sales tax by .62 percent for 20 years, bringing in a projected $767 million annually, or $15.34 billion over the 20-year period. It also would have directed the state to issue up to $6 billion in bonds, to be repaid using the additional sales tax revenue. The money would have gone to road construction and maintenance as well as multimodal projects, with some money earmarked for local projects. 59.7 percent of voters rejected the measure.

Last week’s ETW featured a comprehensive summary of the two measures.

Post-mortem analysis

The measures proposed competing visions not only for how the state should fund its transportation needs, but also for what types of projects should be prioritized. Prop 109 was placed on the ballot as a direct challenge to Prop 110; in a recent Denver Post article, John Caldara of the Libertarian think tank Independence Institute was quoted as saying, “The goal of ‘Fix Our Damn Roads’ was to make sure a tax increase for mystery transit projects failed. In that regard, mission accomplished.”

But it is unclear whether voters’ decisions were based on their goals for transportation outcomes or if larger state budget considerations came into play.

Let’s Go Colorado and a statewide income tax measure for education that was also rejected are the latest examples of state revenue challenges in the era of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, this state constitutional amendment was passed in 1992 and limits the amount of money the state and local governments can bring in. Any revenue that comes in over that limit (which is determined by a complex formula of, for example, inflation rates and population increases) has to be given back to taxpayers unless they vote to exempt themselves from having the revenue returned to them. Prop 110 would have exempted the sales tax increase from TABOR rules.

In terms of bond measures, the state has a mixed voting history, with voters approving $1.7 billion in transportation revenue anticipation notes in 1999 for “transportation projects that qualify for federal funding” and rejecting a $2.072 billion bond in 2005 that would have been used to “repair and replace highways and bridges and accelerate the completion of strategic transportation projects.”

The last time voters approved a statewide sales tax measure (albeit not transportation-related) was in 2004, with an increase in cigarette taxes.

Voter fatigue may have also played into neither measure passing, an outcome that was foreshadowed by AARP Colorado Director Bob Murphy in Eno’s podcast on the measures posted in the leadup to the election. In the city of Denver alone, voters were presented with nearly 20 ballot initiatives on this year’s ballot. Murphy said voters often decide to “just vote no” when faced with a confusing array of state ballot initiatives.

Some have projected that the failure of either statewide measure to pass may pave the way for citywide or regional transportation ballot measures to appear on future ballots, where they may be more likely to pass.

But the state still must address its transportation needs. The state’s population and economy continue to grow, yet CDOT has a $9 billion backlog for infrastructure projects. Earlier this year, the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill requiring voters to be presented with a $2.3 billion bond measure in 2019 in the event of both Props 109 and 110 failing.

Shift in leadership

While voters put the breaks on transportation ballot initiatives in Tuesday’s election, they also reinstated Democratic control over all three branches of state government for the first time since 2014. State program funding challenges will be inherited by these elected officials, which include Governor-elect Jared Polis, the current US representative to Colorado’s 2ndDistrict.

As a Representative, Polis requested over $670 million from the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for a variety of multimodal projects in Colorado. His transportation platform for this year’s governor’s race included fixing the state’s transportation infrastructure, establishing “freedom of mobility” with Front Range Rail (a commission created by the General Assembly to pursue high-speed commuter rail in the Front Range) and mass transit, and creating a smarter (i.e. digital) approach to infrastructure.

All three of these elements refer to funding needs. For example, Polis lists “[providing] the funds necessary to continue the [Front Range Passenger Rail Commission’s] work and to initiate a statewide stakeholder process.”  Where those funds come from, however, remains unknown.

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