Highway shortfall not Denver’s doing | AspenTimes.com

Highway shortfall not Denver’s doing

Whatever the politics are behind the present spate of concerns over statewide highway funding difficulties, they apparently are not the result of an urban conspiracy to siphon money away from rural projects.

At least that’s what the experts are saying, for now.

State Rep. Russell George (R-Rifle), the Speaker of the House, says he is “paying close attention” to highway funding matters. He rejected the idea of an urban-oriented steal from the Colorado Department of Transportation war chest.

“I don’t think that’ll happen,” George said Thursday. “It’s political suicide to do it.”

George conceded that state transportation officials are worried about the fact that they only have about $274 million to pay for an estimated $668 million in so-called “seventh pot” projects scheduled for completion in the coming year.

The “seventh pot” is a grouping of 28 high-priority projects that are being overseen by statewide officials, rather than by one of the six CDOT district offices.

Of those 28 projects, a dozen involve Interstate 25, the north-south highway that runs along the Front Range and connects the state’s major urban centers. When Gov. Bill Owens was running for election last year, much of his campaign was based on promises to add lanes and other highway improvements to I-25 and other arterial roadways south of Denver, an area dubbed “the southeast corridor.”

The voters’ 1998 rejection of the state’s bid to use a large budget surplus for highway construction, along with tax cuts that presently are awaiting Owens’ signature, have left the CDOT scrambling for funds. And a plan hatched earlier this year, to borrow against future federal highway funds and other revenues, was scotched by a recent Colorado Supreme Court decision that any such scheme requires voter approval.

Gov. Owens has already started a campaign to win voter approval for a roughly $2 billion bond issue next fall, but some observers have pointed to last fall’s taxpayer revolt over the budget surplus as evidence that the bond issue might fail. Those observers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, predicted that the conflicting need for money may well come down to a face-off between Owens, CDOT Executive Director Tom Norton, and the members of the state highway commission.

“It’s a real hand-wringer,” House Speaker George said from his Rifle office yesterday. But, he added, Owens and Norton have not indicated to him that they are planning to take funding from rural projects in order to fulfill Owens’ campaign promises about the southeast corridor.

“We still have a lot of political influence – we being the rural areas,” George said. He argued that it was voters on the Western Slope who put Owens over the top in last year’s close race with Democrat Gail Schoettler, “And Gov. Owens knows that,” he said.

Ralph Trapani, project manager for the Highway 82 expansion project, said he has seen no indication of an urban funding grab, either.

“The shortfall is real, that’s for sure,” Trapani said. And, he admitted that “certainly there is conjecture that other projects might get delayed in order that the I-25 construction can go ahead.”

But, he said, so far it is only a guessing game.

“This stuff is going to become clearer next week,” he said, when the state highway commission sits down to “re-prioritize” the list of seventh pot projects.

“But frankly, I’m not really concerned at this point,” Trapani said, maintaining that the highway commissioners realize that Highway 82 is “not a complete project until you get the four lanes complete to Buttermilk.”

Efforts to reach CDOT’s Norton were unsuccessful, but Dan Hopkins, a spokesman for the department, insisted that the “metro area projects” are in just as much jeopardy as rural projects, and there is no move afoot to siphon money from the rural areas to pay the costs of widening and improving I-25.

Roaring Fork Valley officials are still planning to travel to Denver on May 18 to lobby the transportation commission for money to help pay for the Entrance to Aspen project.

And Rep. George has arranged a meeting between Norton and a gathering of local officials in early June. That meeting is expected to take place somewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley.

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