Local legislators divided on road improvements

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Gibbs' successful bill ruffles GOP feathers

By Vicky Gits

After several years of talk but no action, the legislature has approved SB 108, a transportation bill that will raise between $200 million and $250 million a year for three years, mainly through an increase in vehicle registration fees.

SB 108 goes by the acronym FASTER, for Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery.

The bill’s chief architect was Sen. Dan Gibbs, the Democratic senator who represents Jefferson and Clear Creek counties in Senate District 16.

Some observers were surprised when the bill finally made it through both legislative houses and was signed by Gov. Bill Ritter on March 9.

Gibbs’ local legislative counterpart in House District 25, Republican state Rep. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, said boosting registration fees was merely a means of raising taxes without going to voters for approval. A gas tax would be more fair in that it affects everyone who drives, not just people who own cars, she said.

“I know we need to take care of our roads and bridges,” Gerou said. “I don’t think this year is a good time to be asking them. A fee is not that popular. Our state voted for the Tabor Amendment. … It makes voters feel like they have lost control.

“I heard from many that they were willing to accept a small vehicle registration fee increase with a small increase in gas tax, but they felt this was too extreme in these economic times.”

Gibbs said there was broad support for his bill.

“What I had going for me is, I had a very large and strong organization of individuals and organizations supporting the bill from all over the state,” including some prominent Republicans, he said.

But in the end, none of the Republican legislators voted for the bill, although Gibbs originally hoped to get some bipartisan backing.

The bill’s main feature is an increase in most car-registration fees of $31 in the first year (beginning July 1), increasing to $42 by the third year.

The bill also raises fees on rental cars by $2 a day and increases the annual fee on oversize vehicles by $8,000.

The negative impact of higher fees is offset by the positive addition of 10,000 new Colorado jobs that the construction projects will create, Gibbs said.

“When you look at the benefits of the $31, it’s enormous,” he said. “We are doing everything we can do to create jobs. It’s $2.50 a month. A lot of people say that’s an important investment.

“If you are a business owner, you have a lot to gain from a state investing in transportation as a priority,” he said, noting the crippling effect a bridge collapse could have on the state’s tourism industry.

At least $50 million of the total proceeds will be allocated to a special bridge construction fund to address the 126 bridges the state says are structurally deficient.

The new money is not likely to result in any important improvements to Interstate 70, such as light rail, Gibbs said.

“The Preliminary Environmental Impact Study has not been completed, so major funds would not be available to do things like widen the tunnel,” Gibbs said. However, the state can make some improvements without federal approval.

Other projects will come on line with the influx of the federal stimulus money.

Gibbs concedes that FASTER is not the ultimate solution to the state’s transportation needs. A January 2008 report said replacing the 1.2 miles of elevated structure on Interstate 70 in Commerce City will cost $800 million. The Santa Fe Drive bridge over I-25 is 50 years old and a “potential safety issue.”

“FASTER is a step in the right direction, but we need to have a statewide discussion about funding transportation,” Gibbs said. “I’m not a huge fan of the gas tax because it’s regressive. As technology changes, you get less revenue. It will become more obsolete. I would like to see us get away from that.”

Gerou believes a gas tax would be an effective solution and says the money doesn’t have to be raised all at once. She is afraid that with so many important routes like I-70, C-470, U.S. 285 and Colorado 93, Jefferson County is a “huge target for tolling.”