Projects line up for stimulus dollars

Gov. Ritter outlines provisions of omnibus transportation bill

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By the numbers

Colorado Department

of Transportation budget

Fiscal year*: CDOT budget

2007: $1.6 billion

2008: $1.56 billion

2009: $867 million**

2010: $854 million**

*State fiscal year begins July 1. For example, fiscal year 2010 begins July 1, 2009.

** December 2008 forecast

Source: Diane Mitsch Bush, vice-chair, Northwest Transportation Planning Region

— Legislation at the state and national levels could buoy a diminished transportation budget in Colorado, potentially accelerating several projects in Northwest Colorado.

On a Monday swing through Steamboat Springs, Gov. Bill Ritter outlined the provisions of an omnibus transportation bill - a first draft of which is expected to be unveiled today - that could go before the state Legislature for debate as early as next week.

At the same time, Colorado Department of Transportation officials are prioritizing "shovel-ready" projects across the state that could be paid for by President-elect Barack Obama's proposed infrastructure investment plan. The incoming administration and Congress are hashing out the exact details of the plan as part of a broader economic stimulus package.

Last year, Ritter's Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel identified a $155 billion funding gap for CDOT - about $51 billion of which is related to the cost of sustaining existing infrastructure - by 2030 if no new transportation funding sources are established.

Ritter said his proposed transportation bill will include recommendations from the panel including new and increased vehicle registration fees, as well as a transition away from gas taxes and toward a model that taxes individuals based on the number of vehicle miles traveled.

State and federal gas taxes are the primary source of money for Colorado's transportation needs. There hasn't been a gas tax increase since the early 1990s. The tax is not indexed to inflation and - because it is based on the number of gallons sold - is taking a hit as vehicles become more fuel-efficient. For these reasons, Ritter said a system based on vehicle miles traveled makes more sense.

"We're paying for a 21st century system with 1991 dollars," Ritter said. "We have 126 structurally deficient bridges in Colorado. It's just intolerable."

Ritter acknowledges that the switch makes people nervous in rural parts of the state such as Routt County, and he said some mechanism would be put in place to protect those whose lifestyles require long vehicle trips.

"There has to be equity as a part of developing that," Ritter said.

Federal funds

In addition to the money that could be created by action at the state level, officials also are beginning to plan for a federal economic stimulus bill expected to exceed $600 billion.

In a letter to Obama, Ritter made several suggestions for how stimulus dollars could be spent. In the category of transportation, Ritter noted that, "The transportation industry estimates that every $1 billion of transportation construction creates or preserves about 37,000 jobs." Ritter said Colorado has about 160 shovel-ready projects valued at $1.4 billion.

"Shovel-ready" is a term used to describe projects that are designed, engineered, have obtained the necessary rights of way and are ready to be advertised to contractors.

According to CDOT estimates, $250 million to $500 million could come to Colorado through the Federal Highway Administration. The estimates show $30.7 million to $58.5 million being allocated to CDOT Region 3, which includes most of the Western Slope. At a recent meeting in Grand Junction, Region 3 officials ranked their top priorities for the funds, with a $13 million project to build shoulders and climbing lanes on a five-mile stretch of Colorado Highway 13 in Rio Blanco County coming first.

No Routt County projects were ranked in the top five, but 21 miles worth of work on U.S. Highway 40 and Colo. 131 in Routt County are included on a longer list of projects that officials hope also may receive funding.

"The reason we have (two lists) is that many other states may not be as well prepared in their planning process as is Colorado," Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush wrote in an e-mail to voting members of CDOT's Northwest Transportation Planning Region, of which she is vice-chair. "Thus they will have to give money back if their projects are not shovel ready in the required 180 days."

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