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When it comes to repairing Colorado roads, is there a better solution than the gas tax?

Posted: 9:04 PM, Jan 27, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-28 02:50:10-05
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Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.

DENVER — With more drivers using Colorado roads, there’s not only more traffic, but more wear and tear on the infrastructure. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has identified $9 billion in needs from repair and replacement to improvements to help alleviate congestion.

“Without funding, these can’t get fixed,” said CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew.

For decades, the gas tax has served as the state’s main source of funding for transportation projects. Each time a driver fills up their gas tank, 18 cents go to the federal government and another 22 cents go to the state.

However, the state gas tax hasn’t been raised in nearly three decades.

So, is it time to raise the gas tax or are there other ideas to raise money for Colorado roads? Denver7 went 360 to hear multiple perspectives on the issue of transportation funding.

Transportation funding gaps

The gas tax was created in 1933 to help fund transportation needs and was raised incrementally over time.

However, the incremental raises stopped in the 1990’s once the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, otherwise known as TABOR, was signed into law in Colorado.

“Efforts to increase the gas tax to try to keep up with the needs for transportation infrastructure have been met with increasing resistance mainly because of concerns about rapidly rising taxes,” said Andrew Goetz, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Denver.

Along with a stagnant gas tax, cars are becoming more fuel efficient, meaning that they can drive longer distances without stopping at a gas station.

“The average driver today is buying or spending less on gasoline purchases than they did years ago,” Goetz said.

Along with cars becoming more fuel efficient, the purchasing power of the revenue that is being collected from the gas tax currently is diminishing thanks to things like inflation.

“First of all, the needs are greater; there are more projects that need to be built and you’re dealing with a very slowly increasing fund,” Goetz said. “The other big factor is inflation, so costs have risen over this time period of 20 or 30 years, so what you can purchase today with what you’re given is nowhere near what you could 30 years ago.”

In recent elections, Colorado voters have also soundly rejected three transportation funding measures in Proposition 109, 110 and CC, leaving the state legislature trying to determine how to move forward.

Is it time to raise the gas tax?

Sandra Hagen Solin from Fix Colorado Roads believes the reason Colorado voters keep turning down ballot measures for transportation funding is because they are being asked the wrong question.

“We’re now at a point where the gas tax appears to be perhaps the best viable option for a conversation with the voters to improve and enhance revenue for our transportation infrastructure,” Hagen Solin said.

Voters have never been asked to raise the gas tax via a ballot initiative. Hagen Solin points out to polling by her group, which suggests that voters would be open to the idea of raising the gas tax.

Hagen Solin would like to see the gas tax raised from five to ten cents per gallon.

“It is estimated that (a) five cent gas tax would begin to generate approximately $200 million on the front end,” she said.

That money could then be bonded again to help fix state infrastructure.

Part of the reason Hagen Solin believes voters have rejected proposition after proposition has to do with the ballot language. She believes the language used in previous ballot measures has been too vague, but the gas tax offers a time-tested way to guarantee the money collected will be used on roads.

“There needs to be a level of trust that the voters have around how those dollars will be spent and it’s all about how the question is posed to them and how the statutory language is structured to provide that level of confidence.” Hagen Solin said.

But Hagen Solin admits that the gas tax is not the end-all solution to Colorado’s transportation funding needs. Along with raising the gas tax, Hagen Solin believes there needs to be more investment from the general fund on the legislature’s part as well as charging electric vehicles for road use.

A different type of tax

While Goetz agrees that the gas tax needs to be raised as cars continue to evolve and rely less on gasoline, he believes a separate tax might be necessary to help fund state roads.

“In addition to having a gasoline tax, we might think about a vehicle miles traveled tax, which taxes vehicles on the basis of how much they are using the infrastructure and how much they’re being driven,” Goetz said.

There is already some technology that would be able to record how much a car is driving and report it to the state, according to Goetz.

Along with raising more revenue, Goetz believes the taxes will encourage people to drive less, reducing wear and tear as well as congestion. Goetz also believes that the future of Colorado’s transportation funding will take multiple revenue sources from bonding to public private partnerships.

“I don’t think there’s any one pot of money like the gas tax used to be,” Goetz said. “I think those days are gone, but we shouldn’t abandon that. I think that should be augmented, it should be increased and augmented by other sources of revenue.”

An electric vehicle fee

Fuel efficient cars are not the only ones becoming increasingly more common on Colorado roads. More drivers are starting to buy electric vehicles.

Currently, the overall number of electric vehicles on the road is relatively small, however Republican Senator Kevin Priola believes that is going to change not before long.

“Electric vehicles are still relatively new, but if you believe some of the reports I’ve read, they’re going to exponentially be adopted,” Sen. Priola said.

After an unsuccessful attempt last legislative session to replace the gas tax with an additional sales tax to help fund state transportation needs, this session, Sen. Priola has introduced a bill to add additional registration fees on electric vehicles.

“That’s just to adjust the sticker fee that’s currently charged to be on par with what the average internal combustion vehicle pays at the gas pump so that both vehicles, although they’re different fuel sources and different power sources, are on average paying about the same and it’s flowing toward road and bridge construction and maintenance,” Sen. Priola said.

Raising the fees on electric vehicles certainly won’t fund all of Colorado’s road needs, but Sen. Priola believes it would mean that these vehicles are paying their fair share for wear and tear on the roads.

Sen. Priola also believes that whatever solutions the lawmakers come up with this session, he believes the state legislature should contribute more as well toward transportation.

“I think we do need to have a general fund contribution, that’s probably the one thing I would insist on,” Sen. Priola said.

Regional Transportation Authorities

In his State of the State address, Governor Jared Polis spoke at length about the state’s transportation needs. In it, the governor said that the general fund cannot meet all of the state’s needs and that all road users will need to pay their fair share in the future.

Gov. Polis also spoke about the need to allow local municipalities to work toward their own transportation needs.

“We should also give local jurisdictions and CDOT more flexibility to work together on funding regional projects,” Gov. Polis said.

Some areas, like Colorado Springs, have already formed Regional Transportation Authorities to fund their road projects. However, Senator Faith Winter says they are difficult to create.

“To form an RTA, it’s a very high bar. Every single local government in that jurisdiction has to agree to the exact amount of revenue, the exact vote, exactly what it’s being spent on. We want to lower that bar by cutting that really high standard of 100% agreement and be able to get more of these projects to more voters,” Sen. Winter said.

Sen. Winter has introduced a bill to help local jurisdictions create RTA’s without having to meet such a high threshold. She believes RTA’s will do well with voters because the results are more tangible.

“When you can point to a local project that you drive on every day, you’re more likely to support infusing the system with revenue,” Sen. Winter said.

Beyond RTA’s, Sen. Winter thinks it’s time to start rethinking the way that we are using roads. There are more delivery and rideshare services on the roads these days than ever before, contributing to wear and tear.

Sen. Winter is co-sponsoring a bill to add more transparency to public-private partnerships and she says she’s open to other ways to fund Colorado roads, however she doesn’t agree with the idea of a miles traveled tax.

“I would say we should tie to the use of the road and not the miles because, ultimately, people in urban areas are spending more time on the road but rural folks are driving more miles. In both instances, we should be paying for the use of those roads,” Sen. Winter said.

The future of transportation funding

Colorado is not the only state dealing with transportation funding shortfalls.

There are a lot of different suggestions for how the state can fund infrastructure projects on state roads, from raising the gas tax, to bonds, RTA’s, raising electric vehicle fees, a miles driven tax, a road use tax, increasing general fund contributions, and more.

There is no perfect answer for how to fund Colorado’s transportation needs. However, with the state’s congestion and the backlog of roadwork project growing, everyone agrees that something needs to be done to fuel transportation funding in a sustainable way.