Multimodal or Just Roads: Colorado to Decide Between Two Competing Visions for Transportation

November 1, 2018

While voters across 30 states will see transportation ballot measures this Election Day, Coloradans are set to decide on two: one that funds road projects without raising new revenue, and another that raises the sales tax to fund road and multimodal projects.

Prop 109, also known as “Fix Our Damn Roads,” requires the state legislature to issue $3.5 billion in revenue bonds to build and fix roads, paid back over 20 years. Proposed by Jon Caldara of the conservative-libertarian Independence Institute, the measure explicitly prohibits state agencies from using the funds for ancillary costs like administration or for multimodal transportation projects.

“Fix Our Damn Roads is not a silver bullet through our transportation woes,” Mr. Caldara told Summit Daily. “It’s a way to fast track our most needed projects that have been ignored over the last decade.”

The measure lists 66 projects that would be eligible for funds—though the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) estimates those projects would cost $5.6 billion, meaning not every project could be completed with the funds raised by Prop 109.

Supporters of Prop 109—including the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, Colorado Concern, and Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers—say the measure puts the responsibility of paying for projects on the government, not citizens. It also excludes “wasteful” projects like the new CDOT headquarters.

Opponents of the measure say it is dangerous to leave it up to future legislatures to pay back the debt, as it could put other government programs at risk.

“The money has to come from someplace in the existing budget, and certainly that can come from services to older adults, it can come from education, they are targeting Medicaid,” said Bob Murphy, former mayor of Lakewood, CO, and now state director for AARP in an interview with Eno. “That money would have to be taken from other essential services.”

Prop 110, on the other hand, would raise $6 billion by raising the sales tax by .62 percent for 20 years. The money would go toward road repair and construction as well as multi-modal projects.

More specifically, 45 percent of funds raised by “Let’s Go, Colorado” would go toward state highway improvements, 40 percent would be equally distributed to cities and counties for their own transportation projects, and the remaining 15 percent would be designated to the new Multimodal Transportation Options Fund for improvements to mass transit and walking and biking paths.

Supporters of Prop 110—and the list is long, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Contractors Association, several mayors and city councilmembers, and 14 state representatives and senators—say the sales tax increase would help supplement the 22-cent gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since the 1990s. They also point out that out-of-state visitors would help fund Colorado transportation projects, and that the measure provides flexibility for local governments to prioritize their own projects.

“Let’s Go Colorado has the benefit of being a statewide comprehensive solution,” said Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition and strong proponent of Proposition 110. “It addresses the 107 projects identified as statewide projects. But it also offers additional funding to our towns and counties, and dedicates money to multimodal projects like bike lanes and pedestrian improvements. We view it as a well-rounded solution, and a win-win on every level for the state.”

Opponents say the measure fails to define which projects it will fund—CDOT has developed a plan to use the money for over 130 state highway projects—and point out that raising the sales tax is politically unpopular.

Indeed, the most recent polling has shown that Prop 110 lags behind Prop 109 in public support. A Magellan Strategies poll taken Oct. 8-10 found that 52 percent of likely voters favor Prop 109 while only 23 percent oppose it; meanwhile, 35 percent favor Prop 110 while 34 percent oppose it.

But a lot could have changed in a month, as supporters of Prop 110 have blanketed Colorado airwaves with ads including some featuring Gov. Hickenlooper.

So it is possible both could pass, and then things would get interesting: Colorado law provides that if two conflicting measures are approved, the measure with the most affirmative votes (Prop 109 if the polls are correct) supersedes the other on any points of conflict, but any provisions in the less popular measure that don’t directly conflict still take effect. An issue brief written by the Colorado legislature’s legislative council staff seems to imply that both Prop 109 and Prop 110 could be enacted with their main provisions intact, though it does not address the issue directly.

“It will be very interesting if both pass; it’s going to ultimately have to go to the court,” predicted Mr. Murphy. “No one knows how that will come out.”

Another point of interest: the Colorado legislature passed a law, SB 18-001, which provides that if Prop 109 passes, regardless of whether Prop 110 also passes, $1.5 billion in scheduled lease-purchase agreements that would go toward transportation improvements will be canceled. In other words, if Prop 109 passes, it would only raise a net $2 billion for road repairs, not the stated $3.5 billion, because of those canceled lease-purchase agreements.

Eno is closely monitoring the two statewide measures in Colorado, as well as the other 300+ measures on the ballot this Election Day. Stay tuned for post-Election Day analysis on which measures across the country pass and fail.

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