Highway funds still up in air | AspenTimes.com

Highway funds still up in air

Allyn Harvey

Despite assurances from two of Colorado’s most powerful politicians, there are no guarantees that the most dangerous section of Highway 82 will be widened any time soon.

Colorado Department of Transportation Director Tom Norton said yesterday that the question about when the 3-mile segment through Snowmass Canyon will be expanded to four lanes will not be answered before the middle of July.

“We have quite a few projects designed and ready to go – more than we have money to go with,” Norton said.

Faced with an impending shortfall of nearly $300 million, the Colorado Transportation Commission is in the midst of backing out of highway funding commitments around the state. By mid-July, Norton said, the commission should have a better idea about how it wants to allocate next year’s budget.

Gov. Bill Owens and state Representative Russell George said Monday they thought the widening of Snowmass Canyon would be given a high priority from the transportation commission. But they were quick to point out that they don’t personally decide how transportation dollars are spent.

“I think the state is going to continue to focus on getting finished with the canyons,” George said in an interview with The Aspen Times. “Shale Bluffs is well on its way and now we’re focusing on the most costly part of the project in Snowmass Canyon. We’ll do everything we can to keep that happening.”

Owens and House Speaker George, a Rifle Republican who represents much of Pitkin County, met with The Aspen Times Monday while visiting Glenwood Springs. Owens has been traveling around the state signing legislation and pitching his highway funding package, which is scheduled to go before voters in November.

Regardless of the current funding crisis, Owens said, “an important thing to remember is that these projects will be built. The question before the voters is should they be built with cash, in which case, by current estimates, it will take 25 years [to build them all], or should the state have the flexibility to enter the capital markets [and borrow money], in which case they could be moved up to 10 or 15 years.”

Neither was willing to commit any capital – financial or political – toward the Entrance to Aspen portion of the Highway 82 project.

Norton said that the timing of the Snowmass Canyon project is still up in the air. A draft of a 20-year spending plan presented to the transportation commission on May 18 placed Snowmass Canyon near the top of the list of high-priority projects, delaying completion two or three years. But Norton said that list was “extremely preliminary.”

Norton said his department is not even close to making a recommendation about which projects should be funded first and which should be put off for several years.

“We’re not redirecting any of the funding away from Snowmass Canyon or anywhere else, no matter what people say,” Norton said. “What we’re telling people is that we need to stretch things out.”

For Snowmass Canyon, Norton said, that could mean work proceeds as scheduled or faces delays from two to 25 years.

Part of the funding problem comes from the fact that the transportation commission was expecting to have more money for next year’s projects. Instead, it is facing a 2000-2001 budget that is $150 million less than the 1998-1999 budget.

Norton said the legislature appropriated less to the transportation department because it thought it could approve the governor’s proposal to issue bonds and borrow the money without seeking voter approval.

When the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the bonding question must be decided by the voters, it exacerbated the shortfall that already existed.

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