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Pie in the Sky

Springs officials get few assurances on highway funding

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W hen it comes to state funding for roads, Colorado Springs officials won't settle for a few crumbs from the table -- they want their fair share of the pie.

So although members of the City Council were pleased to learn last week that the Colorado Transportation Commission plans to spend $135 million to upgrade highways in the Springs, they're not going to stop "kicking and screaming," in the words of Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, until they feel the city is getting all of the road money it deserves.

During an informal meeting Monday, Skorman and other City Council members grilled state officials about the highway-funding issue, demanding to know why the Springs seems to have received far less back in highway money than what local taxpayers have contributed to the state Transportation Department's coffers.

"There's a widely held perception in the city that we're not getting our fair share," said Councilman Jerry Heimlicher.

However, they received few answers or promises of support from the state officials who showed up to discuss the issue -- including state Sen. Ron May, a Colorado Springs Republican who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, and Dan Stuart, who represents the Pikes Peak region on the state Transportation Commission.

May said he's seen "no evidence" that Colorado Springs has been shortchanged.

"I don't know how you could get a handle on that," May said. "I don't know what's fair and what isn't."

Far short of funding

May and Stuart appeared before the Council just days after the Transportation Commission announced it will spend $120 million to widen Interstate 25 from North Academy Boulevard to Circle Drive, and another $15 million to improve Powers Boulevard. The money will come from the so-called TRANs initiative, approved by state voters in 1999.

In campaigning for TRANs, Gov. Bill Owens promised that by borrowing $1.7 billion, the state would jump-start 24 highway projects throughout the state. However, as originally reported by the Independent last October, roughly half of the money borrowed under TRANs so far has been rerouted to pay for T-REX, the giant project to improve I-25 through Denver. Meanwhile, many of the 23 other projects statewide -- including the Colorado Springs projects -- have been delayed due to lack of funds. [See "Headed for Extinction," Oct. 24, 2002, online at www.csindy.com.]

The Transportation Commission's recent decision still leaves the Colorado Springs projects far short of the funding needed to complete them.

And TRANs aside, Springs officials also believe the city has been shortchanged for decades when it comes to "regular" transportation funding -- money that's collected through gas taxes and sales taxes and earmarked for highways and transit.

Sen. May told the Council he's fighting to increase state funding for roads. But several Council members said what they really want to know is why the city isn't getting its fair share of what's already available.

"The question we're asking is, Who's getting the bigger piece of the pie, and why?" said Councilwoman Margaret Radford.

Lack of information

Data from the 1980s suggests that while Springs-area taxpayers contributed about 12 percent of state tax revenues earmarked for transportation, the area received only 4 percent of overall state transportation funding, Skorman said.

He said local officials have been unable to get similar data for the 1990s from the state Transportation Department. "We don't get a lot of thorough information," he complained.

Moreover, the state Transportation Commission, which decides which highway projects to fund, seems to have no clear formula for how it distributes money, Skorman said. "It feels arbitrary to us."

Radford argued the Commission should use a formula that ensures communities receive a percentage of funds that more closely matches what they contribute in taxes. "I think it's important for the state to come up with some sort of equity-based system," she said.

But May cautioned that trying to develop such a formula could politicize the funding process, turning highway funds into a "pork-barrel" issue.

Stuart, meanwhile, defended the Commission's way of doing business.

"Everyone around the state raises those 'fair-share' arguments," Stuart said. But the Commission hands out money based on "needs" as opposed to notions of "equity," he said.

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