EDITORIAL: The time for interstate toll roads across Colorado is now

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Like it or not, we’re stuck, Colorado.

Every reliable study shows that the state has mounting transportation needs and woes, and more people will continue to pour into the state. At the same time, state legislators are deadlocked over finding serious money to fix the state’s serious problems.

The time for more toll roads in Colorado has arrived.

It’s no longer a question of whether we’re going to spend considerably more on expanding and fixing the state’s clogged and rapidly deteriorating roads. The question residents must answer — since Colorado state lawmakers won’t —  is, “where’s the money going to come from?”

We’re talking big, big money here. Just a few months ago, state highway officials estimated Colorado needs about $9 billion just to fix and improve the highway system to the point of keeping it from failing.

Make no mistake about it. It’s failing. Denver interstates are impassible during rush hours that now begin at 5 a.m. and last until well past 8 p.m. most days. The once hour-long trips between Denver and Colorado Springs, or Denver and Fort Collins, rarely take less than two hours these days. And weekend runs to the slopes during ski season? Hours and hours and hours.

The road system that has changed relatively little since the 1960s is choked with traffic, and new residents continue rushing into the state.

Year after year, state lawmakers argue over where money might come from, but they do little other than leave residents sitting in traffic, motoring on third-world roads and shaking their heads.

Democrats and more than just a few Republicans made a passionate case earlier this year to ask voters to raise sales taxes for roads a paltry one-third of a penny on a dollar spent, but they were slammed to the mat by small group of Republicans who have a death grip on their party and the state senate.

For years in the GOP caucus, it’s been “no” to raising the state’s too-low gas taxes. “No” to sales taxes. “No” to anything that doesn’t take money away from already critically underfunded public schools, colleges, health care or other vital programs.

And the people still keep coming to Colorado, and especially the Aurora-Denver metro area. Spending every dime the state collects on roads, however,  wouldn’t solve every statewide transportation problem. Mass transit plays a critical role in the puzzle. But effective, realistic mass transit and safe, functioning roads don’t preclude each other. Colorado has neither right now.

It’s time to set up toll booths on strategic parts of Colorado’s interstates to raise the money to at least fix and expand them without devouring what relatively few transportation dollars exist in the state.

It won’t be easy. Currently, federal law prohibits states from imposing tolls on existing interstate lanes. But here’s one of the very, very few times we heartily agree with the Trump Administration, which wants to lift those restrictions. We’ll point out the Obama Administration wanted to do the same thing but was thwarted by partisan politics a few years ago. No longer an issue, we hope Colorado and other states will compel this Congress and White House to push toll-road changes through immediately.

The need is great, immediate and overwhelming. The Colorado Department of Transportation has elevated an expansion of I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs, near Monument, that will easily cost $350 million. Anyone who’s recently made that commute knows how maddening the bottleneck is, which consumes endless hours and gallons of gasoline as commuters park on I-25 to wait their turn to move on to even more traffic.

Somewhere between Lone Tree and the south side of Air Force Academy are perfect places to set up toll booths, similar to what’s on interstates all over the country.

The state should toll I-25 there, as well as I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins; I-70 east of Denver to at least Limon; and I-70 from Golden to at least Vail; and I-70 between Grand Junction and Aspen.

In identifying highly congested roadways that need and consume large amounts of Colorado transportation dollars, it’s clear that U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder also should set up tolls to pay for future maintenance and expansion. The road was built with tolls back in the 1950s and 1960s to begin with. The current private-public contract could be modified to accommodate the change.

Tolling makes sense because it raises cash dedicated to the cause, and those who pay are benefiting from the improvements when they fork it over and roll on. The trick to success and fairness all around here is to keep tolls cheap enough to be reasonable, and high enough to raise the cash needed to build more lanes and better roads.

What’s reasonable? How about starting the discussion at a buck or less?

Given current road counts here’s an estimate on what the state could raise from strategic points:

• U.S. 36 “The Boulder Toll Road” from Denver to Boulder: 82,000 cars a day raising about $30 million a year in $1 tolls.

• Denver to Colorado Springs in I-25: About 70,000 cars a day grossing about $26 million a year in $1 tolls.

• Denver to Fort Collins on I-25: About 80,000 cars a day raising about $30 million a year.

• Denver to the ski country along I-70 west: About 45,000 cars a day raising about $16 million a year.

And there are many more opportunities between Grand Junction and Aspen or Denver, I-70 east of Denver and I-25 between New Mexico and Denver.

Relatively small tolls from these strategic highways could be parlayed into serious borrowing power to move desperately needed improvements and repairs into the fast lane.

Inside the Denver-Aurora metro area, a separate, small tax on the region’s nearly 2 million registered cars, possibly $2 a month, could raise an additional $48 million a year to help pay for desperately needed improvements and maintenance in the metroplex.

Additional money could and should be raised by imposing extra fees on commercial transport vehicles, such as semi-tractor trailers and tourism cars. An increase in gas taxes accompanied by rebates for Colorado residents could raise millions more for state transportation needs. It’s unfair and unwise to allow for-profit businesses and an increasing number of tourists enjoy the hard-work of Colorado residents because we don’t have an effective mechanism to have them pay their part.

The alternative to funding road improvement with tolls or some other hike in taxes or fees is what you struggle with every day on your commutes in Colorado. And there is nowhere in Colorado that it’s not going to get worse. Much worse.

Ask any current reasonable, responsible state legislator, there is no Colorado budgetary largess just waiting to be pointed at the state’s dire transportation needs. There are only equally dire needs in education, colleges, healthcare and how Colorado will handle a growing aging population and worsening teacher shortage.

Nobody wants to pay highway tolls. But reasonable Colorado residents want to make sure we can all get to critical destinations safely and without giving up the quality of life and environment that has been a hallmark of this state long before many in the state legislature moved here and are now trying to erode it.