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Michael Lewis, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, explains the background of two possible transportation funding mechanisms proposed for the November ballot during a June 28 public forum in Poncha Springs. Lewis’ visit was sponsored by Ark Valley Voice, and earlier in the day, he participated in a work session with county and municipal officials in Buena Vista (photo by Joe Stone).

Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Michael Lewis spent a day in Chaffee County last week, first joining a work session with county and municipal officials, public works staffs and the local transportation board and ending with a public forum in Poncha Springs.

Invited to participate by Ark Valley Voice, Lewis provided context regarding transportation as Chaffee County begins work on a new comprehensive plan. He also provided background as the state considers whether to place a transportation funding initiative on the November ballot.

“The real reason there is a department of transportation is economic,” said Lewis. “Transportation supports the economic vitality of whatever jurisdiction you’re in. As people moved west, infrastructure was critical to bring raw materials to market, and it still is. These days, transportation access also brings people – tourism – to you. It’s a $20 billion industry here. In fact, the fourth major reason people visit Colorado is to get out and drive on our roads and view the scenery. They don’t just stay in the metro area, and neither should the funding.”

Lewis explained the connection of the past to the present. “Most people dont realize the Romans were road-building experts. Some 1,800 years after Rome fell, first the rivers of this country, then the railroads, connected east to west. Then we built the interstate highway system – which by the way is 46,000 miles of roads – exactly the same distance of roads that Rome built to connect its territory.

“We have to think about connection differently. Just as we are no longer the highway department – we are the Colorado Department of Transportation – this is more than roads. We can’t just keep adding lanes. We have to consider what has to move, and technology is the answer. For instance, there is a master plan for expansion of fiber along the highways – we realize broadband is economic opportunity.”

Planning experts are beginning to identify the boundary of the Front Range as the summit of Trout Creek Pass, Lewis said. “There is a major shift underway. Our reality is there will be more growth and in a shorter time frame. Our state is falling behind year after year in funding infrastructure. It matters to Denver that the whole state economy is doing well. We’re in this together.”

Colorado Transportation Infrastructure Funding

Year People Transportation funding per person
1991 3.3 million $126.00
2018 5.5 million $69.00
8.0 million $41.00

The Colorado Department of Transportation has gathered project requests across all CDOT regions to create the state’s transportation priorities and identified 81 projects that should proceed if funding is available. They total an estimated $6.2 billion.

The problem, said Lewis, is that there hasn’t been a major increase in funding for roads, bridges or infrastructure since the early 1990s. “The easiest revenue to manage is a gas tax, but people hate it … and budgeting from the general fund isn’t reliable. Today’s legislature can’t commit future legislatures to budget initiatives.”

Lewis said two possible transportation initiatives may be on the ballot this fall: Initiative 153 and Initiative 176. Exact language hasn’t been finalized for either. Of the two, Initiative 153 is the metro-Denver initiative that would split the revenue 60-40 between metro-Denver and the rest of the state. Though the metro area raises 80 percent of the revenue, it would designate 40 percent for rural counties. The mechanism would provide a 0.62-percent transportation funding mechanism that would split revenue among program areas, providing 45 percent to CDOT, 15 percent to inter-modal transit projects, 20 percent to cities and towns and 20 percent to county transportation projects.

The second possible transportation option, Initiative 176, would provide funding to repair roads but not much for new infrastructure or multimodal transportation projects.

The work session allowed Chaffee County and its three municipalities to highlight transportation needs.  Salida Public Works Director David Lady said one of the city’s highest planning priorities is the intersection of state Highway 291 and U.S. Highway 50, where major housing construction will increase road traffic.

A recent grant to fund a Highway 50 zoning overlay offers Salida an opportunity to collaborate with CDOT to benefit both the county and the city. Public Works is interested in an access control plan to improve public safety and gateway improvements that would create a better entrance to Salida on U.S. Highway 50.

Buena Vista Town Administrator Phillip Puckett said his town’s priorities include a traffic signal at Baylor Drive to address safety concerns, and a new crossing and traffic signal at Steele Drive, which would provide a fourth crossing of the Union Pacific railway. “It would connect the two primary industrial areas of town and open up more commercial opportunities, plus provide access for emergency services.”

Poncha Springs Town Administrator Brian Berger said Poncha’s priority is the north intersection of  U.S. highways 50 and 285. “It experiences significant backups during peak seasons in spring and summer,” said Berger. “Traffic heading southbound on 285 can’t safely make a left turn, and traffic eastbound on 50 struggles to make left turns on 285. The weekend traffic is getting worse and the traffic counts have been done on Wednesdays – that doesn’t reflect what is going on. And we haven’t even begun construction in our new annexation area northeast of there.”

The county’s priorities support the municipalities and include development of a multi-modal transportation plan, an interconnected trail system, better transit options to connect the county and reliable and redundant telecommunications to support business and safety.

Lewis said CDOT views the projects most important to Colorado as those identified and supported by local governments, rather than top-down directives. “We encourage all of you to think of the budgets as locally driven,” said Lewis. “The 291 and 50 intersection is going to be very important to your local economy. We believe this should be locally driven and pushed hard with CDOT.”