Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper

Speaking to an audience of several hundred Colorado Springs business people, nonprofit executives and elected officials at the Antlers hotel Wednesday afternoon, Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered a “State of the State” message that addressed many regional issues.

Noting that the Antlers hotel, first erected by Gen. William Palmer in the 19th century, had undergone multiple changes and revitalizations since, Hickenlooper praised the city for its resilience over the years.

“Now,” he said, “the energy and sense of momentum is palpable. Unemployment has declined from 9.9 percent at the bottom of the recession to 3.3 percent today.”

Yet prosperity brings its own problems.

Paradoxically, homelessness increases as the economy strengthens, and housing becomes more expensive and less available. People in crisis who lose housing may find themselves without options. Growth also creates congestion, neighborhood disruption and calls to slow down the process.

“If you remember the ’70s,” he said, “you know that you can’t just ease up on the gas and then step on it again and expect that growth will automatically resume — it doesn’t work that way. We have to grow, and grow responsibly.”

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Such responsible growth, he continued, has to include the quick widening of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock.

“That stretch of the highway is congested almost every hour of every day,” he said.

Is the sorry state of Colorado’s transportation infrastructure a consequence of underfunding? The governor thinks so.

“With half our population, Utah spends four times as much as we do on transportation infrastructure,” he said. “Utah increased their gas tax [in 2015] to 30 cents a gallon,” which is 33 percent higher than Colorado’s 22 cent levy. “Their north/south interstate highway has six to eight lanes for its entire length, and it’s paralleled by light rail. If we don’t keep up, we’ll see our young entrepreneurs move their companies to Utah and other states that have made those investments.”

Hickenlooper once again touched upon the Hospital Provider Fee as a partial solution to the transportation problem. Converting it to an enterprise might free up as much as $370 million for transportation spending, but Republican opposition in the legislature killed the proposal in 2015 and 2016. Polls say that increasing the gas tax has little public support, so there’s no obvious way forward.

Despite such problems, Hickenlooper stressed the positive. Colorado, he pointed out, has a skilled and diverse workforce, a strong, modern economy and is a leader in renewable energy. The future is bright, provided that we focus on education and worker retraining to prepare residents for the future.

“Technology is not going to stop,” he said, referring to the continuous process by which new businesses and products replace the old, stranding workers who no longer have marketable skills.