DARIN MCGREGOR/ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS
Traffic backs up on eastbound I-70 as skiers head out of the mountains after Presidents Day weekend this February. A state Senate bill proposing a toll for I-70 drivers has been met with scorn from Routt County officials.
Steamboat Springs State Sen. Andy McElhany's proposal to make Interstate 70 a toll road from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Floyd Hill passed a Senate committee last week, but Senate Bill 213 doesn't have many friends in Routt County.
"It's just a total unfair solution," County Commissioner Doug Monger said. "It's strictly a discriminatory tax on the citizens of Western Colorado for a statewide need."
McElhany's bill would impose a $5 toll, with allowances to increase with inflation, on that 32.4-mile stretch of highway. The bill would exempt residents and business entities of Clear Creek, Gilpin and Summit counties. The bill passed the Senate Transportation Committee, 5-2, last week and now is being considered by the Appropriations Committee.
County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush was in Denver for last week's committee hearings.
"The discussion by Front Range legislators really didn't seem to grasp what I-70 means for all of Western Colorado," Mitsch Bush said. "It's our lifeline. It's our artery. It's how goods get here. : It was very much a Front Range perspective. I was very dismayed at the tone of the discussions."
McElhany is a Colorado Springs Republican.
Mitsch Bush said she has a number of concerns with the bill, including the uses it proscribes for toll revenue. While toll revenue could go toward increasing capacity, it could not be invested in alternative modes of transportation such as buses or rail. The bill also would allow up to a third of the revenue to go toward administration costs. Monger described that allowance as a "black hole."
"That's an enormous administrative overhead percentage," Mitsch Bush said.
Mitsch Bush also said the philosophy behind toll roads relies on the existence of alternate choices for motorists. She said such choices don't really exist for Routt County motorists heading to the Front Range because alternative routes are much longer and may require crossing high mountain passes that many times are closed and are more dangerous, especially for the large shipping vehicles that many Routt County agriculture operations rely on.
The private sector also is concerned. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond said there are many holes in McElhany's bill. For example, Diamond said, it's not clear how the legislation, which is aimed at relieving congestion, wouldn't actually increase it by forcing motorists to stop at tollbooths.
"We certainly aren't in favor of the current proposal," Diamond said. "I would qualify that by saying we aren't against a menu of solutions to fix I-70 for everyone. At least they've got the debate going with this current proposal."
Rep. Al White, R-Hayden, doesn't give the bill much of a chance at success.
"I don't think it's going anywhere," White said. "I think it's going to die. First of all, it's a bad idea. Second of all, it doesn't have enough support."
Mitsch Bush and White noted that McElhany's bill ignores the recommendations of a report issued in January by the Colorado Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel and work being done by other groups such as the I-70 Coalition. The transportation panel suggested five new sources of transportation funding including an increase to the state gas tax and adding an annual $100 "state highway maintenance fee" to the cost of registering a vehicle - but no tolls.
Flo Raitano, executive director of the I-70 Coalition, said the bill is premature and "imposes a legislative solution on top of the efforts being made." In addition to not consulting the coalition, Raitano said McElhany also didn't consult Western Slope legislators such as Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, or Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs.
"That's as important a lifeline to Routt County and Steamboat Springs as anything else," Raitano said.
White said he is waiting to see the solutions that are being suggested by the coalition and others before proposing his own. He said he supports mass transit solutions because they are environmentally friendly and would efficiently move people in and out of the mountains.
Monger said the county commissioners will make their dissatisfaction known in Denver.
"To say the least," he said, "we're going to draft a letter elaborating on our dismay."