A long-heralded transportation bill that would raise an estimated $3.8 billion over a decade from new fees on gas purchases, online deliveries and other items passed its first test Monday in the Colorado legislature.
But hours of testimony before the Senate Finance Committee underlined points of tension that remain within the broad coalition of interest groups that praised the bill’s introduction last week. Business leaders, environmentalists and local government leaders from both parties — including the mayors of Colorado Springs and Denver — had stood next to Gov. Jared Polis, hailing the months of difficult talks that resulted in the 197 pages of Senate Bill 260.
The key friction is between advocates for transit, multimodal and electric vehicle-centered projects — who hope to see the state tackle climate change in a big way — and those who think Colorado’s many highway needs won’t get enough money.
“The $734 million this proposal would put towards electrifying our transportation sector represents one of the biggest investments in electrification by any state in the country,” Elise Jones, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said approvingly.
But while the former Boulder County commissioner said she hoped to see the bill fine-tuned on other fronts, other environmental advocates rejected the idea of compromise on a bill that still would likely provide money to expand pollution-producing highways. Meanwhile, some business and local government backers voiced concerns about new environmental assessments the bill would require for capacity-adding projects.
Overall, Weld County Commissioner Scott James accused the Democratic lead sponsors of shifting the balance too far: “As written, Senate Bill 260 is more concerned with the pleasing of the environmentalists than it is in providing a reliable transportation system for the very disproportionately disadvantaged communities it claims to champion.”
The committee advanced the bill 4-3, voting along party lines, after more than seven hours. It goes next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The bill’s bottom line is estimated at $5.3 billion in the next 11 years, including nearly $1.5 billion in budget transfers and stimulus dollars that mostly were planned. The Colorado Department of Transportation said its 10-year, $5 billion priority project plan of highway and transit projects — now about one-third funded — would get about 75% of the way to the finish line.
“Finding a balance into how much to invest into pavement, how much to invest into climate, how much to invest into multimodal — and what is the adequate source of funding … ultimately, that’s why we haven’t solved this problem in 30 years,” said Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, a lead sponsor, more than four hours into the hearing. “There’s not going to be any perfect transportation bill.”
The intent behind the bill is to raise money by assessing a variety of road user-type fees that would be paid by drivers, the trucking industry, electric vehicle owners, people who order items for delivery — including online purchases — Uber and Lyft riders, and others.
A proposed “road usage fee” essentially would be a gas fee on top of Colorado’s existing 22-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which produces declining revenue as fuel efficiency improves. Raising that tax would require asking Colorado voters under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
The separate fee would start at 2 cents per gallon in mid-2022, ratcheting up to 8 cents by mid-2028, with a similar fee created for diesel fuel, too. The delivery fee would tack 27 cents onto each purchase, and ride-hailing fees would range from 15 to 30 cents.
Republicans including Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction accused the majority Democrats of subverting voters’ intent in approving last fall’s Proposition 117. That measure requires voter approval of fees assessed by a new state enterprise depending on how much they’d raise. The bill sponsors said they had a basis for proposing a trio of new fee-assessing enterprises dealing with different aspects of electric vehicles, each raising less than 117’s threshold, rather than a single enterprise — which would’ve raised enough to require a public vote.
Under the bill, an existing $50 registration fee for plug-in electric vehicles would rise. New fees imposed on a 10-year schedule would start at $3 to $4 and rise to $27 for a plug-in hybrid or $96 for a full-electric vehicle. The fees aim to approximate how much owners are saving by not consuming gas.
At Polis’ urging, bill sponsors included upfront relief on all motor vehicle registration fees, reducing them by small amounts in each of the next two years.
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