Funding is big hurdle for I-70 mass transit

A second article on I-70 planning . . .

BY BOB BERWYN
summit daily news
October 20, 2006

COPPER MOUNTAIN – There is widespread consensus among I-70 coalition members that mass transit needs to be a big part of any long-term solution for the I-70 mountain corridor. But federal and state highway officials said transit proponents shouldn’t rely on massive government funding.

Planning and building a transit system will require not only innovative technology, but an equally creative financing mechanism, most likely through a combination of statewide taxes and bonds, experts said Thursday during the I-70 Coalition transit workshop and retreat at Copper Mountain.

Through 2010, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has budgeted about $65 million for I-70 corridor improvements, with a bigger pot of about $1 billion available for strategic projects. Funding beyond 2010 is uncertain, said CDOT’s Joyce Bunkers.

“There is no silver bullet for funding,” added Brian Pinkerton, CDOT program engineer for Region 1, which covers most of the I-70 mountain corridor. “Without some kind of change, we will not have enough money to keep roads and bridges in current condition,” Pinkerton added.

The most frequently discussed transit alternatives, including various fixed guideway systems running from DIA to the Eagle County airport or beyond, could cost as much as $6 billion. For the sake of comparison, Pinkerton said CDOT’s annual budget runs about $800 million.

And the federal government is probably not in a position to pony up that kind of additional cash, said Charmaine Knighton, of the Federal Transit Authority (FTA). Knighton outlined several funding programs for transit systems, and explained that the FTA is looking for projects that give some real bang for the bucks. Under a rigorous evaluation and rating system, the agency looks at the ratio of cost to passengers carried per mile. Other criteria include whether the system serves low-income populations, whether there is employment near stations and whether the projects offer environmental benefits.

“It’s very expensive terrain to put any kind of a system in, whether it’s highway or transit … it’s an extremely expensive environment to work in,” Pinkerton said, briefly touching on the challenges of addressing environmental concerns, as well as potential impacts to communities along the corridor.

While he didn’t mention any specific towns, concerns are greatest in Clear Creek County, where any type of highway or transit construction is sure to have significant impacts to communities like Georgetown, Idaho Springs and Silver Plume.

The federal government is looking to move the most people for less money, Pinkerton said.

“For every dollar spent, how many people go how far?” Pinkerton said, simplifying the FTA’s funding equation. “I don’t think the money is going to come from one particular source. It’s going to have to come from a multitude of financing options,” he concluded.



Statewide solution

Those options could include a statewide sales tax or a levy on gasoline, said Alan Matlosz, senior vice president of George K. Baum and Company.

“There is no limit to the amount of money to fund the project … the difficulty is, you have to pay it back,” said Matlosz, whose company provides investment banking and financial advisory services to local governments throughout Colorado.

Matlosz outlined several ways that the I-70 coalition might be able to raise the money through existing mechanisms already authorized under state laws, including formation of a metro district that could levy property taxes, or a regional transportation authority that could be funded by sales taxes.

A regional transit authority would require a complex intergovernmental agreement and voter approval for a sales tax increase, vehicle registration fees of up to $10, as well as a 2 percent lodging tax could also be levied by a regional transit authority, Matlosz explained.

Focusing in on the eight counties represented in the coalition, Matlosz said that, based on some table-top calculations, a 1 percent sales tax could raise about $52 million annually, based on current taxable retail sales in the region. A $10 vehicle registration fee would generate another $2.24 million, he said.

Dallas, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Atlanta and San Jose all have sales-tax-funded transit projects, he said.

“They’re easier to get passed – people just don’t like property taxes,” Matlosz said.

A statewide one-cent gas tax hike could raise about $25 million annually, while a 10-cent hike could fund about $4 billion worth of improvements, Matlosz said.

“There are mechanisms to raise funds through a district or transit authority. The challenge is to figure out what to tax, where to tax and how to spend the money,” he concluded.

“This state has never had a designated funding transit source,” said I-70 coalition director Flo Raitano, adding that a one-half percent statewide sales tax could finance about $4 billion worth of bonds.

Raitano said the gas tax idea warrants caution and sensitivity to the concerns of people living in rural areas who, out of necessity, drive a lot.

The transit workshop wrapped up Friday with a facilitated session aimed at identifying areas of agreement and disagreement on transit performance criteria and on management and operating principles.

The coalition website is at http://www.i70mtncorridor.com.
For more info on transit options, go to http://www.i70mountaintransit.org.

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