EDITORIAL: Hardly the best route to improving Colorado roads, Senate Bill 1 is the only way forward for now — pass it

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At long last, a dubious compromise among state lawmakers may offer Colorado a way to get back on the road to improving everyone’s increasingly miserable commutes.

Funding transportation improvements has been a vexing task in Colorado for many reasons, chief among them has been Republicans’ unwillingness to ask voters for money. For years, some GOP in the House and Senate have maintained that Colorado has the money to fix and expand state roads and bridges. Democrats have said no excess funds exist.

They’re right on this one. More than all of Colorado revenues are already spoken for. Republicans who suggest otherwise have never shown any credible data nor plan that would put more money into roads without cutting it elsewhere. Putting more cash toward the state’s $9 billion shortfall would mean taking the money from either public schools or Medicaid.

Colorado already ranks among the bottom of state-spending on public schools, and that’s becoming a critical problem unto itself.

Medicaid spending is tied to Obamacare, and cuts in state spending would create a spiraling down effect in matching federal contributions, pushing even more people into a broken system that charges those costs back to paying customers. Despite what many Republicans say, it’s an irresponsible option that ultimately costs everyone.

With Republicans controlling the state Senate and Democrats running the House, years of stalemate and recession have created a very real transportation funding crisis.

Last year, state lawmakers finally agreed to a few accounting and budget shenanigans to pull together $1.9 billion, but the scheme is really nothing more than loans that must be paid back.

Democrats have maintained that only some kind of new taxes will keep the state solvent and create needed transportation money. Republicans have dug in, again, to stop the Legislature from asking voters for money.

With a steady stream of new residents coming to Colorado, the situation only gets worse every month.

Under these circumstances, a compromise version of Senate Bill 1 makes sense. The measure has been scaled down to funnel $250 million from existing state coffers. The state budget, as recently announced, has seen substantial growth because of the economy and population growth. It’s doable, for now, without digging deeply into existing programs.

By parlaying that annual pool of new money into loans, the state would be able to spend about $5 billion on transportation projects — half of what’s desperately needed, not wanted.

That’s a good start.

And, there’s still time to hammer out details and make them public, because the loan program wouldn’t happen unless voters approved it, even though there’s no tax increase in the program. Should the measure fail, the money would go toward transportation maintenance, in a wise effort to keep the program from leeching cash from schools and other state programs.

A recent additional compromise would delay the statewide vote until 2019, which would give citizen-led initiatives time to ask voters to raise some kind of taxes for transportation, either complimenting Senate Bill 1 or even supplanting it.

It’s not a perfect or even compelling solution. But it’s the only thing that looks like it could make it through the Legislature and onto a willing governor’s desk.

Desperate for transportation funds, this could be the state’s only chance.

No doubt a better solution would be a mixture of reasonable gas, registration, sales, hotel and over-the-road transport taxes, to ensure a revenue stream that shares the cost of transportation improvements among everyone who uses the system. Those taxes and fees, bolstered by reasonable tolls on strategic routes, such as I-70 between Denver and the ski areas, I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs, and I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins, would allow for meaningful, sustained expansions that would substantially reduce gridlock.

Programs like that, however, will take foresight and courage this Legislature has been unable to muster. Given that, we recommend lawmakers take the sure thing and send SB1 to the governor to make it happen.