Gridlocked! Can a gas tax help Colorado escape a perpetual traffic jam?

DENVER – There is no easier way to say it: traffic in Denver sucks! This sentiment is shared by many drivers stuck in the increasingly clogged arteries of one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country.

Denver-area commuters are driving on a decades-old freeway system, which was designed and built in the 1950s and 60s. Although major construction projects through the years have tried to keep up with the region’s growth, it’s obvious to commuters like Caitlin Naftz that the system reached its capacity long ago.

“It’s actually gotten worse in the last year,” said Naftz about Denver’s traffic problem. “[My commute] used to be 38 to 42 minutes. It’s definitely increased.”

Data backs up commuters' sentiments, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. The state agency says traffic worsens daily as the population of the Front Range continues to balloon.

CDOT's data is collected from drivers’ cell phones, and it shows just how rapidly gridlock has increased over the last four years. Hampden Avenue from C-470 to Interstate 25 is one of the worst in the metro area. The average rush-hour trip along the nine-mile corridor has increased by 9 minutes in just three years.

Other routes around the metro area have also seen a substantial increase in the amount of time commuters spend stuck in traffic. These are some of the most agonizing bottlenecks and average travel times during the morning commute (7 a.m. – 8 a.m.) around the metro area:

Are we stuck in neutral?

There are plans to help alleviate our traffic woes, but some of them will likely never see a green light. CDOT says it is stuck in neutral because of a lack of money. Colorado roads projects face a $9 billion backlog. Could a neighboring state have the answer?

Utah spends nearly as much money as Colorado on road construction, but the beehive state has half the number of residents. They are able to do this because the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is partly funded through a .29 cent gas tax. As the cost of gas goes up, so does the gas tax.

“We’re obviously proud about what we do,” said Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of UDOT. “I could not imagine Utah doing what we’ve been able to do with the regulations you have in Colorado.”

In Colorado, lawmakers have kept our state gas tax at .22 cents since 1992. According to CDOT, the gas tax would need to be raised to .32 cents to properly fund roads. That means filling up a 12-gallon tank would cost you $2.64 more in taxes. However, the state can't raise the gas tax without a vote of the people.

Braceras doesn’t find himself begging for money because the Utah legislature can vote to raise taxes. The Republican-controlled state also takes 21 percent of its sale tax and spends it only on building new roads.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper applauds Utah’s approach.

“I mean, those are the kinds of things that we should be doing,” said Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper has pledged to make this the year Colorado tackles transportation, but he admits raising taxes to do this will be almost impossible.

“We try to do the planning effort, and it becomes partisan so quickly,” explained the governor.

Hickenlooper told a Colorado Municipal League summit on Thursday that time's run out the state's long-running roads funding debate.

He said that he'd ideally like to see concrete proposals in the Legislature by the end of March.

Another way to add the much-needed lanes to our state’s overused infrastructure is through public-private partnerships. It’s a fancy way of saying more toll lanes. It’s something CDOT has been doing in the last five years to offset some of the cost of construction.

This approach has worked to some degree. The express lane on I-70 coming out of the mountains has dramatically reduced congestion. CDOT says that proves that adding just one lane in places can make a huge difference.

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