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The Problem With Trump’s Infrastructure Plan? Colorado Already Does It

Jim Hill
Traffic on I-25 north of Denver.

President Trump’s infrastructure plan dramatically cuts the federal government’s investment in road and transportation projects and instead calls upon states and corporations to shoulder most of the cost. Funding for the proposal would come from $200 billion in tax breaks over nine years that would then — in theory — leverage $1 trillion worth of construction. That could include mortgaging public buildings or public-private partnerships, which usually means toll roads.

But that plan won’t work in Colorado -- the state has already done it.

“The reality is that Colorado has already looked at those options. We have pulled every rabbit out of the hat to try to think about how we add additional funding into the system so that we can keep people safe and keep people moving,” said Amy Ford, representative of the state Department of Transportation.

Private investors are interested in turning a profit, which is why most public-private partnerships are on highly trafficked roads or bridges. Only two interstates in Colorado -- I-70 and I-25 -- are attractive to corporations due to their volume, and they already have private investment in many areas.

And the thousands of miles of rural roads? Forget it.

“When it comes to rural roads, I think it’s fair to say that we, as a state, have long underinvested in some of our transportation needs. But the concept of a public-private partnership on rural roads, that’s probably less likely,” Ford said.

"Frankly, folks are paying right now one way or the other."

The Colorado budget for the 2018 fiscal year allows for government buildings to be sold and then leased back by the state and, after much partisan wrangling by legislators, allots transportation $1.8 billion over the next 20 years -- an amount that Ford thinks is insufficient.

“In that same 20 year time frame, we have a billion dollar a year shortfall every year for $20 billion worth of needs,” she said. “You either could say the glass is half full, but probably more accurately, it’s fair to say the glass is about 10 percent full. We are in the process of establishing now how we will look at that $1.8 billion that we do have and which projects we may be able to move forward.”

A bipartisan measure to ask voters for a sales tax hike for transportation was defeated along party lines in the 2017 legislative session. The question could still go before voters this fall if supporters get enough signatures to get it on the ballot. Ford thinks raising taxes for transportation is an option that Colorado should consider.

“You know we have a neighbor, Utah, who has done exactly that,” she said. “They’ve raised their gas tax twice in the last 10 years. They’ve also added a sales tax that’s dedicated to transportation funding, and you can see the results of that on their roads.”

As the state’s population continues to grow -- estimates show about 100,000 people are moving to Colorado every year -- Ford expects people to become less complacent about transportation.

“Frankly, folks are paying right now one way or the other. Either they are paying, perhaps, with an additional tax, or they are paying with their time,” she said.

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