Rough road for transportation funding

Financial shortages for road, bridge repairs common across Colorado, speaker says

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— The outlook is "doom, gloom and gloomier" for the state's transportation system, a speaker at the Colorado Municipal League's annual conference said Thursday.

During a workshop about funding current and future needs for aging roads and bridges, Michael Penny of Gov. Bill Ritter's Blue Ribbon Transportation Panel made the above comment and said Colorado is short an estimated $500 million needed to maintain current roads and keep them safe enough to drive on. Ritter created the panel to research and offer recommendations about the transportation situation in Colorado.

According to a report by the panel released in January, about 20 percent of the state's roadway system has a 0 percent life capacity left - a condition familiar to Routt County.

"We're in the same boat as the state," Tammie Crawford, Routt County's road and bridge field coordinator, said about increasing road maintenance needs and an insufficient budget. "We don't have the money to maintain what we have, and we can't add more roads."

Of the 847 miles of road in Routt County, 152 miles are paved. Crawford said each road needs to be maintained every five to seven years with a chip seal - which helps to prevent small pieces from breaking off the pavement - or an overlay, which involves repaving the road.

"Every year, we look at each road and have to ask ourselves if we can push (surface treatment) back a year," because of inadequate funds, Crawford explained.

Ten years ago, it cost $19,000 per mile to do a chip seal and $32 per ton to do an overlay. Now, it costs almost 90 percent more for a chip seal and almost 200 percent more for an overlay. "You also have to add the cost of gas," which affects work vehicles and the cost of "damages like the Cog Road slide" (in Hayden), Crawford said.

She added that if a road is not maintained, it eventually will break down completely and cost twice as much to rebuild.

"It's a vicious cycle," she said.

Last November, Routt County voters turned down a proposed property tax increase that would have raised at least $3.3 million for road improvements and other projects. Opponents of the ballot measure, called Referendum 1A, criticized its lack of a sunset provision and unclear spending plans.

Communities across the region are in a similar funding bind.

The Western Slope is short $36 million per year for the next five years to deal with the backlog of roadways with no remaining surface life, according to the transportation panel's report. If roads in rural areas are shut down because of deterioration, Penny said, some areas could see 200-mile detours. He said this would affect tourism, delivery of goods and commuting all over the state.

In Routt County, symptoms of low transportation funds are ruts, broken pavement and gravel roads that have "wash-boarded," said Doug Marsh, street fleet superintendent for the city of Steamboat Springs. He said there are curves with low sight distance that need to be fixed by "removing hills."

"Everything (the county) needs to do is expensive," Marsh said.

Among the Blue Ribbon Panel's recommendations about how to increase funding for the state are adding a highway maintenance fee of $100 per vehicle; increasing the motor fuel tax; establishing a visitor fee on car rentals and hotel rooms; increasing commercial sales and use taxes; and increasing severance tax rates on oil and gas income to be dedicated for transportation.

But Crawford stressed that in her mind, the best way to increase transportation funding is through a ballot measure similar to what failed in November.

"It's hard to weigh all the options," for maintenance projects that need to be done on Routt County roads, Crawford said. "There just isn't anywhere to get more funding."

- To reach Kristi Mohrbacher, call 870-1376 or e-mail kmohrbacher@steamboatpilot.com

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