Safe Roads: Investing in Infrastructure

J. Skyler McKinley

Pop quiz: Who pays for our highways, roads, and bridges? When I asked a friend that question, he joked that he assumed each stretch of road was paid for by whoever’s name was on the closest “Adopt-a-Highway” sign.

As we all know, the truth is that our taxes pay for our infrastructure, and under the Colorado Constitution, we have the unique right to determine how much those taxes should be.

To that end, if you’re a registered Colorado voter, you recently received your 2018 general election ballot. With it, you can help set the course for our future through your perspective on a range of amendments, propositions, and local measures. I want to single out two transportation funding initiatives you are being asked to weigh in on. I hope to break down each initiative in straightforward terms, but I also recommend looking at your 2018 “Blue Book” for arguments from supporters and opponents of each measure.

If passed, Proposition 109 would direct the state to borrow $3.5 billion to fund up to 66 specific highway projects. Each year, over a period of 20 years, the legislature would need to budget $260 million to pay back the bonds totaling $5.2 billion, including interest. Importantly, this measure mandates that these projects be funded without increasing your taxes or fees. To meet this annual obligation, other government programs related to healthcare, education, and even transportation may need to be cut – especially during an economic downturn.

Proposition 110, in turn, would create a dedicated funding stream by increasing the state sales tax. The typical Colorado family earning $74,000 annually would pay an additional $131 in taxes each year. Those earning more would pay more, while those earning less would pay less – at least in theory. Opponents of sales tax increases argue that lower-income individuals get an unfair shake, as they spend a larger share of their money on taxable goods. Others point out that such a sales tax would, in part, be paid by visitors to our state. If passed, Proposition 110 would raise $6 billion for transportation infrastructure over 20 years. Unlike Proposition 109, which funds only specific state-level construction projects, this money would be divvied up: 45 percent goes to the state, 40 percent goes to local governments, and 15 percent goes to what are called multi-modal projects – public transit, bikes, and pedestrian projects, among others.

Your decision on these issues might be informed by your answers to several different questions. Does Colorado need to spend more money on its roads and highways? If so, would you be willing to pay more in taxes for those improvements, or should the legislature instead prioritize highway projects with the money it already has? Is it better to borrow money, or to pay as you go? Who do you trust more to make transportation decisions: your local government or the state? Should investments in transportation be limited to specific projects you approve, or should government have broad spending authority? Should your money be used to expand transportation options, such as buses and bike lanes, or exclusively to improve and maintain roads?

Since we numbered Colorado’s first highways in 1922, AAA Colorado has been here for you. As you ponder over these and other transportation questions, my team is happy to serve as a resource at publicaffairs@colorado.aaa.com or 303-753-8800. I promise that the conversation will be worth the investment of your time.

J. Skyler McKinley is AAA Colorado’s spokesman and director of government affairs.