Wednesday, February 4, 2009

FASTER Gains Initial Senate Approval With Tolls Provision

The Senate, in a surprising reversal, gave preliminary approval Wednesday to the controversial "FASTER" transportation funding bill, but only after first removing provisions that would open the door to additional use of tolls to pay for needed improvements and then adding that clause back to the bill.

SB 108 was approved on a party-line vote of 21-14.

The toll provision had been stripped earlier in the day by a coalition of Republicans and a few Democrats. But it was restored to the bill by the Democratic leadership before the vote.

The toll provision of the FASTER bill would authorize local governments to collect tolls to pay for the improvement, maintenance and repair expenses related to highways under their control.

Among other amendments agreed to by the chamber's ruling Democrats are provisions that remove a pilot project to study assessment of fees according to mileage driven, allow heavy trucks to pay a single-trip charge where tolls are in place, and that require 80 percent of the workforce on a highway project to employ Colorado workers and preference on contracts to be given to Colorado companies.

Republicans argued that the majority Democrats had not tried hard enough to compromise, while Democrats said they had gone as far as they could to accommodate GOP concerns over increased registration fees while preserving the amount of money needed to repair the state's crumbling highways and bridges. Democrats also argued that their willingness to phase in the fee increases was a significant compromise.

Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, also disputed GOP warnings that SB 108 could impose a political cost on Democrats in 2010.

"The numbers I care about are 47 and 12," Groff said. "47,000 Coloradans have lost their jobs in the last 12 months. The number I care about is 126. There are 126 structurally deficient bridges in Colorado that need to be fixed. The number I care about is 35. The I-35 bridge was the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota and we cannot allow that to happen in Colorado. We have a responsibility to get people back to work and that’s what this bill is about. It’s about putting Colorado back to work and making sure the roads are safe."

The measure, sponsored by West Slope Democrat Dan Gibbs, would raise motor vehicle registration fees by an average of $41 over the next three years in order to raise more than $200 million per year for transportation. The money would secure more than half of a billion dollars in bonds to pay for the improvements and repairs.

Under current law the state cannot spend any money on transportation until the general fund grows by six percent over the previous year. During a period of economic recession, when state revenues decline, transportation loses most or all of its funding.

Majority Democrats say a consistent funding source is needed both to expand the state's highway system and to repair more than 100 bridges deemed structurally unsound.

Republicans want some of the general fund allocated to transportation and have also suggested using a portion of severance taxes paid by energy companies to fund transportation.

Minority leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, accused Democrats of displaying a lack of "common sense."

"This Senate is poised to impose hundreds of millions of dollars in new fees on motorists, but we can't reprioritize any money in our existing budget -- not a single penny -- towards safer roads and bridges?" Penry said.

The GOP idea to allocate severance taxes was nixed by voters in the November 2008 election.

The current law requiring transportation to be funded only after six percent growth in the general fund, known as SB1 funding, was enacted in 1997 during a period of Republican control of the statehouse.