Colorado lawmakers eye tolls, registration fee increases

| 1/28/2009

The state of Colorado is expected to be in line to receive $520 million for roadwork from the federal stimulus package being debated in Congress. Even with the infusion of funds, officials in the state say it is not nearly enough to address transportation needs this year and in future years.

With these factors in mind, Gov. Bill Ritter and fellow Democrats have their own plan to boost revenue to fix the state’s crumbling roadways.

The plan includes raising transportation funds through an increase in vehicle registration fees. It also would authorize issuing bonds to pay for critical safety projects, as well as create a new government agency that could turn some freeways into toll roads.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 4-3 along party lines Tuesday, Jan. 27, to advance the governor’s initiative, which is expected to generate $250 million annually over four years via an increase in registration fees based on vehicle weight. The cost of permits for oversize and overweight vehicles also would rise.

The initial $100 million from the increases would be used to upgrade the 125 most structurally deficient bridges identified by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The other $150 million would be used for roadway safety and divided among the state, counties and municipalities.

Also in the works is the creation of a “high performance transportation enterprise” that would pursue opportunities to charge tolls, issue revenue bonds and enter into agreements with private groups to build new roads.

Officials with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association point out that truckers and others already pay federal taxes and user fees that contribute to the upkeep of interstate highways. The Association, therefore, opposes the tolling of roadways because it amounts to double taxation for truckers.

OOIDA also opposes the long-term leasing of existing roadways to private business. Association officials oppose the idea of these private companies being guaranteed profitable toll increases on the backs of highway users.

The plan also calls for a pilot program on eliminating the fuel tax and, in its place, implementing a vehicle-miles-traveled fee.

Ritter said the initiatives sought in the plan are needed to help modernize the transportation system and boost the state’s economy.

“If we’re going to build a 21st-century transportation system to get our economy moving again, we can’t do it using a 20th-century financial model,” Ritter said in prepared remarks.

Discussion on the issue of vehicle-miles-traveled fees in Colorado also has the attention of OOIDA.

The truckers group says the debate over federal transportation policy needs to be settled before the funding mechanism is advanced. However, the advancement of the tax collection method appears likely.

“We think ultimately VMT is where the highway funding issue will have to go, but the capabilities to do that aren’t fully developed yet,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said.

Colorado Republicans are opposed to a transportation funding bill that includes tolls on existing roads and a fee based on miles driven. Instead, they are offering an alternate plan that includes smaller increases in registration fees and diverting money from the state’s general fund to transportation. Their plan also excludes tolling existing lanes and pursuing a mileage-based fee.

The GOP proposal would raise as much as $150 million annually – about $100 million less than the Democrats effort introduced by Sen. Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne and Rep. Joe Rice of Littleton.

Gibbs’ and Rice’s bill – SB108 – now moves to the Senate Finance Committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest in Colorado in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

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