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Regions vie for share of transportation funds

By John Fryar
The Daily Times-Call

DENVER — Denver Regional Council of Governments officials think the state should be spending a bigger chunk of transportation dollars annually on highway improvements and other projects in their nine-county, 42-municipality metro region.

Colorado Springs-area governments reportedly have expressed similar concerns about the adequacy of the Pikes Peak region’s share of transportation funding.

Organizations representing a number of the state’s less densely populated areas, however, are wary of any changes in state resource-allocation formulas that they fear could rule out or delay transportation projects they say are needed in their own regions.

Lawmakers on the Transportation Legislation Review Committee spent several hours Wednesday listening to those differing points of view, although the final decision about changing the funding-allocation system will be up to the Colorado Transportation Commission, rather than the Legislature.

Bill Vidal, DRCOG’s executive director, said Wednesday that after “we had a very public dispute” with the Colorado Department of Transportation in last year’s transportation committee meeting, his organization has followed the committee’s directives in working with CDOT and other interested parties in trying to come up with new funding formulas.

Part of that new system, however, should give some weight to how much revenue a region contributes to CDOT’s transportation budget, such as through fuel taxes, DRCOG officials contend.

The Denver Regional Council of Governments area — which includes Boulder County — contributes about 53 percent of that revenue to the state transportation budget, DRCOG officials have estimated, but the area now gets only about 36 percent of the state’s annual transportation expenditures.

DRCOG officials also have argued that state transportation spending should create a better balance between money spent on highway maintenance and the amounts spent on relieving traffic congestion.

But Rep. Buffie McFayden, a Pueblo West Democrat whose House district represents parts of Fremont and Pueblo counties, objected at Wednesday’s meeting that DRCOG is counting the federal transit dollars and local tax revenues spent by the Regional Transportation District.

McFayden said, “No other areas of the state are getting the kinds of dollars spent by RTD in conjunction with T-Rex,” the highway and light-rail transit improvements along the Interstate 25 corridor through south metro Denver.

Representatives of Progressive 15 — an organization whose members include a number of business organizations and local governments in a 15-county northeast Colorado region that extends from Larimer and Weld counties southeast to Kit Carson and Cheyenne counties — told Transportation Legislation Review Committee members that overall state transportation funding already is inadequate.

“A shifting in funding won’t fix the problem,” said Rick Dykstra, executive director of Progressive 15.

Dykstra and other Progressive 15 officials have expressed concerns that a change in the funding-allocation formulas recommended by a special state task force working on the issue also would shift transportation priorities from the traditional statewide perspective to a more metropolitan focus.

The funding changes proposed by the special task force would shift $104 million a year, about 12 percent of the state’s typical total transportation spending, from rural to urban highways, Progressive 15 officials warned. They suggested that shift could make it difficult or impossible to afford improvements needed to Interstate 70 west of the Denver area, maintenance needed to I-70 through eastern Colorado, and improvements to Interstate 25 outside the state’s metro regions.

However, Rep. Jim Welker, R-Loveland, said after Wednesday’s meeting that it appears the recommended changes in the formulas might actually benefit the engineering region that includes Larimer, Weld, Boulder, Morgan, Logan, Sedgwick, Phillips, Huma and Washington counties.

Cathy Garcia — executive director of Action 22, an organization representing a southern Colorado area whose members include Fremont and Custer county governments and the cities of Caon City and Florence — said her group hasn’t taken a position on the proposed funding-allocation changes.

But Garcia expressed confidence in the ability of CDOT and the state Transportation Commission “to fund projects as they currently are doing,” as money becomes available.

Action 22’s top transportation priorities, according to material Garcia distributed at Wednesday's meeting, include improvements to U.S. Highway 50 from Pueblo to Grand Junction and to Colo. Highway 115 between Caon City and Colorado Springs.

Representatives from Club 20, a Western Slope organization, argued that good highways anywhere in the state are important to the entire state’s economic vitality. They said the statewide highway system is critically important to tourism and that in their area, the statewide system is what allows them to move their goods and products to market.