Early this year, when Republican and Democratic leaders of the Colorado General Assembly agreed on the framework of a multi-billion-dollar sales tax proposal to improve the state’s road infrastructure, the first inclination was to give it a chance.
If the state’s voters would be willing to increase the sales tax by a half-cent, then that would provide the needed level of major funding to deal with Colorado’s most glaring problem.
But that plan met with opposition among legislators, and also in Colorado Springs. After all, our city already had approved its own sales-tax hike to tackle our road and bridge problems. As Mayor John Suthers was quick to point out, another half-cent jump would put too much burden on Colorado Springs, maxing out our combined sales tax for years to come.
The idea of asking the state’s voters for a tax increase never fell into place, though just before adjourning, legislators approved a far more modest transportation funding bill. We still don’t know whether, or when, that money might be able to help widen Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock.
So as we see more tourist-related traffic than ever this summer, literally overwhelming many of the state’s major highways, the question hasn’t gone away: How can the state find an acceptable way to come up with the billions needed to make a real dent in the infrastructure needs?
One idea is to forget about raising the sales tax — and instead add to the state tax on gasoline, currently at the same 22 cents a gallon where it has been since 1993 — 24 years ago. Given that gas prices are low and oil supplies high, not to mention that the visitors coming by car also would help pay for it, the concept of increasing the fuel tax is alluring.
For the sake of comparison, check these gas tax rates for other Western states: Nebraska, 27.7 cents; Utah, 29.41 cents; Nevada, 33.85 cents; Idaho, 32 cents; Oregon, 31.1 cents; California, 40.62 cents; and Washington state, a whopping 44.5 cents.
For the short term, it’s worth considering. But not for that long. Just last week, Volvo took the first bold move in what likely will become a global trend, announcing plans to end production of gasoline-only cars by 2019. Yes, just two years from now. More auto manufacturers are sure to follow, making more and more hybrid and all-electric cars. At that rate, sometime in the next decade, only older cars and trucks still in use would depend solely on gasoline.
Where does that leave us? The long-term solution might have to lean more on technology. Perhaps cars could be programmed to show how much they’re being used, with car owners billed on distance or time, possibly even from other states.
Colorado also might resort to toll roads, given the success of E-470 and express lanes in the Denver area. That’s become acceptable around the state’s largest metropolis, yet it’s not a popular solution in Colorado, and by all indications also not in Colorado Springs.
But with each year that passes without aggressive action, the closer Colorado comes to facing a problem so dire that it requires extreme tactics.
Look at it this way: Nobody has flinched when the open market has given us fluctuating gas prices, jumping 10 to 20 cents a gallon without warning, not just recently but for many years. So if Colorado tacks on an extra nickel or more per gallon, nobody will know the difference.
And it won’t stop a single family from taking that car vacation to Pikes Peak and beyond.
We just can’t look at that as being a permanent answer, but it certainly could make a difference for five years or so, especially as long as the economy stays strong and gas prices remain reasonable based on abundant supply.
If the lawmakers (and perhaps Gov. John Hickenlooper, or his successor starting in 2019) want a multi-faceted approach, perhaps Colorado can figure out some kind of highway use tax that applies to state residents as well as visitors, with more toll roads only as a last resort.
That part could be as simple as having a contest for high-tech companies and startups, offering a large reward for the best cyber program/solution to tracking highway usage, billing and collecting revenue anywhere in the state.
That would produce innovative ideas — and we have to start somewhere. In Colorado, why not lean on the technological brilliance in our midst?
That should be a no-brainer.