Highway Commissioner Kathy Connell decries revenue crisis | SteamboatToday.com

Highway Commissioner Kathy Connell decries revenue crisis

Traffic flies down U.S. Highway 40 over the Elk River on Friday evening. State Highway Commissioner Kathy Connell, of Steamboat Springs, said Tuesday that declining state funds for highway projects will make it difficult for mountain communities to see repairs until new funding sources materialize.

— State Highway Commissioner Kathy Connell, of Steamboat Springs, said Thursday that she's feisty enough to press home on Front Range officials an important point about Western Slope highways. However, dwindling state funds for road maintenance and capital highway projects will make it difficult to steer a path to the future until new funding sources materialize.

Connell, a former Steamboat Springs City Council member, said Front Range government officials and her colleagues on the highway commission need to be reminded that the highways on the west side of the Continental Divide play a vital role in generating Colorado sales tax receipts.

"The Front Range needs numbers from us to help them understand the economic hit" the area will take if mountain road networks branching off the Interstate 70 west mountain corridor are allowed to decline, she said.

"About 30 percent of tourism and visitor spending in Colorado occurs in the mountain resort region," Connell told an audience attending a Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association economic forum this week. "If tourists find it difficult to travel through the mountains, it will cost a lot of money in state sales taxes."

Connell was appointed in June 2011 to represent Colorado Department of Transportation District 6 comprising Clear Creek, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties.

She noted that a report titled "The State of Transportation in Colorado" that was released in March indicates that a 1 percent decline in tourism spending in the mountain resort region would translate into an annual loss of $25 million in business revenue.

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All of the persuasive figures that tie general sales tax revenues to the quality of highways that serve mountain resort towns won't matter if CDOT can't find new revenue streams, Connell said.

She told her audience to expect future highway building and widening projects to include some form of toll roads — not necessarily tolls for entire highways but likely tolls for motorists who want to use fast lanes.

Ironically, one of the challenges for CDOT's fiscal picture is the growing use of energy-efficient vehicles, Connell said.

CDOT's budget depends on revenues from the state's gasoline sales taxes, Connell said, and not only does Colorado have the country's 18th-lowest gasoline taxes — which are a flat rate per gallon, not indexed to gasoline prices — but more efficient vehicles steadily are depressing those revenues, even as the number of automobiles on Colorado roads is increasing with the population.

And although fuel-efficient vehicles save their owners money on gasoline, the cars have a proportionate impact on the highways as gas guzzlers of a similar weight.

The state's fuel tax has remained at 22 cents per gallon since 1991, according to the state of transportation report.

Connell said that construction costs rise annually and that Colorado needs voters to adjust the state's fuel tax to account for that inflation if it is to have a chance to maintain Colorado's road system.

"CDOT's budget has decreased by 30 percent from 2007 to 2012. It's declining, and we're not even keeping up with maintenance. CDOT is no longer able to deliver the same level of improvement as it did decades ago," Connell said.

Connell has been in the property management field for 25 years, and she was deeply affected throughout the years by the deaths of three employees in highway accidents. The most recent was the loss of a longtime employee in a rockfall in Mount Harris Canyon along U.S. Highway 40 west of Steamboat, where CDOT is working to make the stretch of highway between Milner and Yampa Valley Regional Airport safer.

She acknowledged that when she went to her first meeting as a highway commissioner, she was pretty fired up to get something done about the hazard on the highway west of Steamboat.

But among the many things she has learned recently about the Colorado Department of Transportation's challenges is that the dangerous stretch of highway here is just one of 750 rockfall sites statewide.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

Area roadwork

■ U.S. Highway 40 in Mount Harris Canyon: Motorists should expect one-lane, alternating traffic and 20 minute delays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays through July.

■ U.S. 40 on Muddy Pass: Motorists should expect one-lane, alternating traffic and possible delays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through April.

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