Voters Don’t Agree On Colorado’s Transportation Woes, And Grantham Still Wants A Solution

May 1, 2017

If lawmakers won't address the issue of transportation, several groups say they will, through a ballot initiative asking Colorado voters to raise taxes to improve roads, bridges and transit projects.

One of the most important advocates of the plan to increase taxes in the legislature was an unlikely ally, the Senate's top Republican. But he couldn't prevent members of his own party from defeating House Bill 1242 at the end of April.

While there's some blame going around the Capitol, ordinary voters have their own take on transportation and a tax increase. Pamela Barker of Fort Collins said traffic is a challenge. She prefers to bike around town but is frustrated by a frequent drive she takes to Colorado Springs to visit her mother.

"I've been driving down there to visit her the last 20 years that we've lived here," she said. "It used to take a reliable two hours and 15 minutes, and now it can be anywhere from 3-4 hours."

Barker said she's fine with a sales tax increase and author Dolores Kimball from Colorado Springs agrees. She also rides her bike as a primary form of transportation but said even that is becoming problematic.

Senate President Kevin Grantham (R-Canon City) jokes around before the bipartisan transportation bill was unveiled. Ultimately his GOP colleagues defeated the measure.
Credit Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage

"I have to tell you as a cyclist, riding bikes in this town has become life-threatening," Kimball said. "If you think it's bad in a car, you ought to ride on some of these roads on a bike. You take your life in your hands. We used to look around at the scenery. Now you don't dare take your eyes off the pavement, there's so many ruts and holes and ditches."

Kimball said she would want to make sure any tax hike would be transparent and the money would go where it's supposed to, "and can't be shuffled off into other projects."

Others want more specifics on how the money would be spent.

Ron Terry is a part-time paramedic living in Westcliffe. He said he knows first hand how bad some of the roads are.

"We're often driving large ambulances on some of the roads that are so difficult to get to that we often have to call on other support to get our patients back to the highway," he said.

Terry said he's OK with a tax increase as long as his rural region is not forgotten.

"I would certainly support it if I could see some value for some of the rural counties in Colorado," he said. "My concern is that a lot of times is the revenues end up in the larger metropolitan areas and I don't see that benefiting areas where most of our roads are."

Breezy Obletz and Jessica Hammond of Cortez both said they would support a sales tax increase for roads and transit. They would like more bus and taxi service in the Cortez area.
Credit Austin Cope / KSJD

He's not the only person in rural Colorado wary of how a transportation fix might play out. Some say they're used to feeling left out.

"It's a bummer especially for a business owner like me. It's not very well known I feel like it's overlooked compared to Durango or Rico or Telluride. I fee like our community has so much more to offer," said Breezy Obletz of Cortez.

She owns the Mainstreet Emporium in downtown Cortez, a gift shop and salon. She'd like more paving and better transit, and she's willing to pay for it. She said there is no bus service and very few taxis.

"I've flown into Cortez before and I've had to depend on family and friends because there wasn't any available transportation. I think that's a problem trying to grow our community and bring tourists in," Obletz said.

The biggest divide among voters seems to be whether they think the existing transportation system is working well or not.

"Why would the American people want to pay more?" asked David Sherrod.  He works for a car company in Cortez and thinks people are already over-taxed.

"Already we're hurting to get jobs, hurting to pay rent, hurting to support our kids," he said.  "It seems like it's not a lot, but after six months, what does it go up to? Half a cent accumulates."  

Ron Terry is a part-time paramedic in Westcliffe. He said he would pay higher taxes as long as some of the money goes to rural areas.
Credit Nicole Parsons / KLZR

29-year-old waitress Amanda Gagnon is also skeptical of a tax increase. She just moved back to Colorado after spending three years living in Massachusetts and southern California and commutes from suburban Lakewood to downtown Denver on the light rail.  

"The transportation here is insanely better," she said. "I don't know what they need more money for. It's ridiculous how good the transportation is."

Supporters of the tax increase thought a unified transportation ballot measure coming from the legislature would have had the best chance of passing. Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham of Canon City now worries that several proposals addressing transportation could wind up on the ballot this fall.  

"If you end up with multiple measures on the ballot, everyone is going to pick their favorite one and everyone is going to lose and we don't get anything done, and my hope is we get one good solid measure on the ballot," he said.

There's also a concern that the metro area may come up with a solution but rural parts of the state would be unable to pool together in the same way to find answers.

"The bottom line is we need to fix transportation funding in this state. If it can't happen here in the legislature, OK. If we're unable and capable of doing that here, we're going to have to deal with that with our constituents. That's not a pleasant conversation and never is."

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.