In first transportation bill hearing, lawmakers get an earful from residents, lobbyists and officials

Three hours into a day-long transportation hearing at the Statehouse, lawmakers heard two things loud and clear: Coloradans care a lot about their roads. And they have a lot of opinions on how to pay for them.

Nearly 80 people signed up to testify before the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday for the first hearing on House Bill 1242 , the major transportation funding bill negotiated by House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Senate President Kevin Grantham .

The bill would send voters a referred measure to increase the statewide sales tax to 3.52 percent from 2.9 percent, in order to generate an estimated $702 million a year. Most of that money would help cover a $3.5 billion bond package, whose proceeds would be split between state and local projects, to include roads and other forms of transportation, such as mass transit.

Lawmakers heard from residents, lobbyists, business groups, activists and a wide array of local officials from across the state who stressed how important it was for Colorado to begin to address an estimated $9 billion in needed projects. The crowd was so large at the start that it spilled into two overflow rooms and out into the hallways of the Capitol.

“We are in a terrible situation in our state as far as infrastructure goes,” said Sal Pace, a Pueblo County Commissioner.

But while there was wide agreement on the need, there was no such accord that the Duran-Grantham bill represented the best road to get there. Some suggested using other revenue sources, such as income taxes, that would have less of an impact on the poor. Few who testified on the bill were — or paying for it without a tax hike at all, something that many Republican lawmakers insist can be done within the current budget.

One of the most consistent points of disagreement was the formula that determined how the money would be spent. Under the proposal, CDOT would get $350 million a year for payments on the bond package. The remaining funding would be split, with 70 percent going to local governments for roads and 30 percent earmarked for alternative modes of transportation, such as mass transit.

The debate is expected to stretch well into the night, with lawmakers planning to offer upwards of 30 amendments for consideration. The discussion underscored something that both Duran and Grantham made clear when they first announced the compromise earlier this month : the bill as introduced was just a starting point.

Leading up to the hearing, the compromise got off to a rocky debut, with top Republican leaders coming out in opposition to the deal , and conservatives in both the House and Senate offering alternative bills that would avoid a tax hike.

Then on Monday, one of the state’s leading transportation advocates, Fix Colorado Roads, issued a statement applauding the measure’s introduction, but said “the proposal falls short in several key areas.”

One complaint: The group, which is backed by Colorado business groups, said too much of the money was going toward local projects instead of major state thoroughfares. And, unlike the local funding, the portion set aside for CDOT wouldn’t grow over time as sales tax revenues increase.

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But local government officials said that money needs to be earmarked for local projects, since it comes from a revenue stream — the sales tax — that local governments rely on to provide basic services.

Other local leaders implored lawmakers — in particular, the Republican ones — to ignore pressure from conservative groups that oppose any sort of tax increase.

“You’re hearing from people who don’t want it to go to a vote of the people,” said Aurora Mayor Marc Williams. “Let them (the public) have a vote. Let them have a say.”

This story will be updated.

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