I-25 may devour Hwy. 82 funds | AspenTimes.com

I-25 may devour Hwy. 82 funds

John Colson

The public position of state transportation officials and politicians has been that the Roaring Fork Valley should not feel it is being targeted for a money grab as a result of state funding shortfalls.

But some sources, in state government and elsewhere, have indicated privately that the truth is somewhat gloomier, in terms of seeing local highway projects completed anytime soon.

In fact, it appears likely that there will be, sooner than later, a face-off between the political desires of Front Range Republicans and the very real transportation needs of the Western Slope.

One highly possible outcome of that face-off is that the money slated for the remaining expansion and redesign of Highway 82 will end up being spent to widen Interstate 25 south of Denver.

The causes of this are, at their roots, both fiscal and political.

On the fiscal side of the equation, when the state highway commission put together its list of 28 high-priority projects known as the “seventh pot” a couple of years ago, it was with the full knowledge that there was not enough money to do all the work.

These 28 projects have been taken out of the hands of the six transportation district offices around the state and placed in a seventh, special category being handled on a statewide basis. At current estimates, they are expected to cost more than $5.3 billion all together. But the total amount appropriated for the projects, as of January 1999, comes to just under $4 billion.

It has been assumed that the extra $1.3 billion would materialize from somewhere, and last year the state thought it had at least part of the answer when voters were asked to put $500 million in surplus tax revenues toward transportation projects. But the voters declined to go along, and now the state is really scrambling.

Doug Aden, the highway commissioner for the Roaring Fork Valley and surrounding region, admitted this quite openly last week, calling it “an issue of overprogramming or underfunding.”

But in the past couple of years, thanks largely to the fact that many of the “seventh pot” projects were nowhere near ready to be built, the commission has been able to juggle projects and money without hitting a serious crunch.

The crunch arrived this year with the realization that the seventh pot contains only $274 million in cash, and is slated to build $668 million worth of projects in Fiscal Year 2000. And with a series of tax cuts approved by the legislature and likely to be signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens, there is no relief in sight.

So, something has got to give.

The political side of the equation has to do with a combination of influences.

For one thing, Gov. Bill Owens campaigned heavily last year on pledges to do something to fix the overcrowded highways south of Denver – namely, add lanes and other improvements to ease the congestion. His opponent, Democrat Gail Schoettler, said she believed mass transit solutions might be better than simply building more highway lanes.

Although Owens won by a mere 9,000 votes or so – hardly a clear mandate for highways – he is bound and determined to go ahead with the “southeast corridor” highway improvements he promised to the voters.

Looking further back into the state’s history, there is another aspect to this situation – the fact that Pitkin County and Aspen resisted efforts to widen Highway 82 through the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Colorado Department of Transportation was not pleased by that opposition, and there remain plenty of old guard engineers and bureaucrats who do not look kindly on the Roaring Fork Valley. Their influence cannot be known, but it should not be discounted.

Owens, it should be recalled, is at his heart a highway booster, and a Front Range man to his core. He paid lip service to the idea of mass transit in his campaign, and it remains to be seen how he will perform now that he is in office with regard to the division of resources between highways, buses and trains.

But it probably is safe to assume that, if he knows anything about the Roaring Fork Valley’s long debate on the subject of transportation, his feelings are not fond ones.

On the other hand, the highway commission itself seems to have a fairly good understanding that an incomplete Highway 82 expansion project is about as good as no expansion at all. And since the Highway 82 project is one of the furthest along on the seventh pot list, to leave it hanging for a few years might not be the wisest choice.

It may be that the local political road show will be able to make its case in June, when local officials meet with CDOT’s executive director, Tom Norton. Norton, after all, is a political being himself and, being from Greeley, is not part of the Front Range metroplex crowd. He should know the value of the rural political punch, and it may be in his interest to stand up to Owens’ priorities.

But it also is appropriate to note that several members of the highway commission will be up for reappointment soon, and guess who does the appointing? Bill Owens.

The unknown quantity in this equation is the fate of the anticipated bond election next fall, when Owens will ask voters to authorize the state government to borrow against future revenues to raise money for building highways and other transportation projects. It may simply be that Front Range interests are looking for a way to hedge their bets, laying claim to rural highway funds on the chance that the bond election is rejected by the voters.

Any way you look at it, there are tough choices facing Colorado’s transportation policy makers.

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