Without some very tricky maneuvering on the part of lawmakers, Colorado Springs drivers could be traversing some rougher — and even dangerous — roads in years to come. And there are several problems to blame.
First, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA). The governmental entity, created by voters in 2004, serves Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs, Green Mountain Falls and Ramah. The RTA's purpose is to fund voter-approved capital projects on roads, bridges and interchanges; maintain roads; and help supplement budgets for mass transit. RTA is funded through a 1-cent sales tax. However, the capital projects portion of that sales tax — .55 of a cent — expires in 2014.
The second problem has to do with state Rep. Glenn Vaad of Weld County. Vaad is finally getting some traction in the Colorado Legislature on an idea he has advocated for years. Commonly referred to as "devolution," the idea is to hand off many state highways that really function as local roads. Under the plan, local governments suddenly would have to maintain bridges and roads that had been the state's responsibility. Many of those roads and bridges are in ill repair.
The third problem is that many lawmakers, facing recession-plagued constituents, are not friendly to tax increases. Radio personality and conservative politician Jeff Crank has been e-mailing a pledge to all City Council and mayoral candidates in the April election, asking them to promise not to support any tax increase. Many have signed on — which calls into question whether they'd support a renewal of the RTA capital tax, or even an increase in that tax, to fund an increasing backlog of road projects.
The truck stops here
When voters first approved RTA, they believed three long lists of projects might be completed in the next decade with their tax dollars.
But between a recession-caused dip in sales tax collections and a rise in building material costs blamed on the "Katrina effect" (building materials were in high demand after Hurricane Katrina, causing a price surge), the RTA will be lucky to finish its "A" list by 2014. So far, 24 A-list projects are complete, seven are under construction, eight are in design, and eight are not yet started. Another 16 B-list and 11 C-list projects don't have funding.
That said, most politicians agree the RTA has been a rousing success. Quite simply: RTA did what supporters said it would do, and kept administrative costs to half of 1 percent of its budget.
"The RTA is widely accepted as a very successful tax project," says Vice Mayor Larry Small, the RTA board chair. Made up of elected representatives from member governments, the RTA board has been planning to ask voters to renew the capital portion of the RTA tax in November 2012 (giving the board two years to amend its efforts if a first renewal attempt fails).
In preparation for the ballot question, the RTA has been asking governments in Park, Teller and El Paso counties if they want to join. Once the issue of new membership is resolved, the RTA board will decide on capital projects to be funded by a renewed capital tax, and then refer the question directly to the ballot.
If voters approve a renewal, the capital projects list will be set in stone for years to come. Which will be no small problem if local governments suddenly find themselves buried under a fresh list of urgent road projects, courtesy of the state government.
Reorganization is long overdue, Vaad says by phone. The state, he points out, is only obligated to maintain state highways — roads needed to traverse the state from community to community. But sometimes a road like, say, Academy Boulevard, starts out as a state highway, then gets absorbed by a city's growth. After a while, that road isn't taking people from town to town; it's taking people from store to store.
Vaad, chair of the state House Transportation and Energy Committee, has fought four years to transfer control of urban roads like Academy to local governments. Last year, he helped pass HB 10-1405, requiring a state study identifying state highways for devolution. (If 80 percent or more of cars on the road travel within a city, the road is eligible.) Only cities with 50,000-plus residents will be affected, and the bill does not impact interstate highways.
The results are due Feb. 1, and the Legislature will likely spend months examining study recommendations. Based on what he's seen so far, Nick Kittle, Springs Public Works team leader, says the costs for caring for the roads and bridges the Springs would inherit (and updating them to accommodate increased traffic) will be quite substantial.
Jason Wilkinson, policy and communications manager for Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, recently wrote in an e-mail, "Devolution would add no less than $20 million per year ($227 million over 10 years) in maintenance costs to Teller and El Paso counties, combined..."
Vaad acknowledges the high costs of devolution, and says he believes local governments should get a share of the $70 million in annual highway user tax fees currently going to those state roads. But he also says that despite the heavy burden of caring for roads, local governments are better equipped for the job.
"We can't generate funds on a state level; that hasn't been successful," he says. "People aren't going to come together across the state and say, 'OK, we're going to raise the state sales tax,' when they know that it isn't going to support or benefit their local area. ... So it's just a matter of — the term I use is the old English proverb, 'Whoever calls the tune should be expected to pay the fiddler.'"
Not everyone agrees.
Says El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark: "We [local governments] are all on the same page of: We don't want to take on your responsibilities."
On the side of roads?
Crank calls his pledge the "Taxpayer Protection Plan," and its wording is simple: "I, (name), pledge to the taxpayers of Colorado Springs that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."
As of Jan. 13, five mayoral candidates had signed the pledge: Stephen Bach, Brian Bahr, Mitch Christiansen, Buddy Gilmore and Phil McDonald. So had four City Council candidates: Tony Carpenter, Angela Dougan, Sean Paige and Dan Reifschneider.
But while Crank calls his pledge "straightforward," its meaning gets a little tangled when it comes to the RTA. Would its renewal be a tax increase, since the existing tax has an expiration date? Or is it simply continuing an old tax?
Dougan says she'll support an RTA renewal at the current level.
"That is not a new tax," she says. "And that is also going to the taxpayers as a very specific, very designed, 'We are going to buy these Milk Duds for this money' ... If the taxpayers say yes, we want to continue that vision, more power to them."
Crank's pledge, however, definitely obligates signers not to support an RTA increase — and that could be troubling if local governments suddenly find themselves dealing with the results of devolution.
As Small puts it: "They [would] have inherited something that they need to fund, which they have no funding for."