Our view: Life is a highway
April 8, 2017
Pitching a sales tax to provide funding for highway improvements
The bipartisan collaboration between our own state legislators in advancing a proposed bill to ask voters to increase highway funding across Colorado is long overdue, to say the least.
We were impressed this week by the bipartisanship implicit in the news that State Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, and State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, are co-sponsors of a new bill working its way through the Colorado legislature that has the potential to break the log-jam over how best to raise more funds for maintaining and modernizing the state's long-neglected transportation system.
Baumgardner and Mitsch Bush are political opposites, but they both understand the urgency of investing in our aging state highway system and have been able to set aside their differences to unite around a funding initiative that could prove critical to the future of commerce and travel in our state.
And it doesn't hurt a bit that Baumgardner and Mitsch Bush are both positioned as chairpersons of the transportation committees in their respective houses of the legislature.
The bill, proposed by Mitsch Bush and Baumgardner and recently endorsed by the House Finance Committee with a 10-3 vote, would lead to a statewide vote seeking to increase the state sales tax by 0.62 percent. The increase, if approved, would add six cents to every $10 spent on taxable goods and is expected to raise $695 million annually for the state's transportation system.
A large portion of the monies, about $375 million, would be used to leverage bond issues that would fund billions of dollars in highway projects. Northwest Colorado could see the addition of safety improvements, such as shoulders and passing lanes, on more of Colorado Highway 13, which runs from I-70 at Rifle north to Craig. Similar work could take place on U.S. Highway 40 east and west of Kremmling.
It's understandable if readers are wondering why Colorado doesn't raise its gasoline tax, which amounts to a user fee, in order to improve our transportation system.
The gasoline tax hasn't been adjusted for inflation since the early 1990s. The result is that Colorado's 22-cent-per gallon flat tax on gasoline has lost ground in its purchasing power for highways. But another factor is that Republican legislators have been wary of asking voter approval to raise gas taxes due to its negative polling.
Steamboat Today reported in June 2015 on a visit U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton made to the Routt County Board of Commissioners, when Commissioner Doug Monger said failure to address transportation needs "would be the economic downfall of our state and probably of our nation."
Tipton responded that, what the nation needs to fund highways is a sustainable revenue stream that will not result in new taxes on motorists.
And in February, the Denver Post explained why, even though 19 states have raised gas taxes to pay for roads since 2013, Colorado is unlikely to do so. Citing research and polling performed by the Colorado Contractors Association, the Post reported the likelihood of voters voting to tax their own gasoline purchases is very slim. On the other hand, a sales tax simply polls better and is more sustainable.
It's early in the game, and we aren't fully prepared to endorse the proposed 0.62 percent state sales tax until we learn more about it. However, we have a strong sense that the time has arrived for Colorado to double down on the future of its transportation infrastructure, and this may be our best chance in many years.