Not all taxes are created equal.
In a city like Boulder, where residents pride themselves on liberal and progressive identities, forcing behavior changes through the use of taxes is rarely perceived as problematic. In fact, just a couple of years ago Boulder passed the soda tax to curb residents’ intake of sugary drinks that often lead to expensive health conditions. So in November, it is highly unlikely that Boulder residents will bat an eye when reading the thirteen ballot initiatives proposed, including and especially “Let’s Go Colorado!” or Proposition 110 (originally called Initiative 153)—a regressive tax increase to pay for statewide transportation improvements.
The bill is one of two bills competing to be a solution for our state’s infrastructure woes. “Let’s Go Colorado!” is competing against the “Fix our Damn Roads” Proposition 109 (originally called Initiative 167). Proposition 110 posits a solution rooted in a 0.62 percent sales tax increase while Proposition 109 demands a solution that does not involve tax increases but rather proposes borrowing or bonding. Neither hits the mark and both ignore the elephant in the room about why Colorado, at the height of a population boom, lacks the revenue to address our growing challenges and what the state is doing with available resources.
With recent state growth, one has to wonder what is preventing us from thoughtfully crafting not only a more effective transportation and transit systems but also the funding structures that will manifest them. We are undoubtedly generating the most revenue we ever have in our history and the demand for a bustling world class multimodal transportation network is everpresent. Yet, the best of our state’s talent are proposing two solutions that fail to reimagine mobility with a 21st century lens on climate change, equity, and connectivity. The root of the debate is how do we expand interstate superhighways—a solution from 1956 that President Dwight Eisenhower modeled after Germany’s Reichautobahnen network of rural superhighways, built mostly under Adolph Hitler. They were also uniquely funded ninety percent by the federal government.
Colorado currently has an annual state budget of $30 billion with $1.7 billion going toward transportation. Prop 110, backed by the establishment and business sector, would raise $766.7 million annually via the tax increase for twenty years and authorize up to $6 billion in state bonds. Prop 109, backed by the conservative Independence Institute, would allow the state to borrow up to $3.5 billion in state transportation bonds without a new revenue stream. Both initiatives bank on the current economic boom for generating the funds through taxes or paying back the massive debt of bonds.
The problem with the sacrifice we are being asked to make is that while we have the ability to vote on the actual tax, we haven’t historically had the ability to vote on what the funds are spent on, project by project. Thus we find our state spending billions on projects that waste our limited funds. A prime example is CDOT’s recent decision to take down the I-70 viaduct in Denver and triple the size of the I-70 footprint in a 2-mile stretch through Denver from Colorado Blvd. to Brighton Blvd. without securing full project funding. Many think that this $2 billion project is a thinly veiled attempt at completing a pre-requisite for an even more financially wasteful project, an Olympic bid. By conservative estimates, the project is expected to last anywhere from 5-10 years and is being spearheaded by the same leader who led the Boston “Big Dig” which was plagued by cost overruns and lasted about a decade.
The responsibility of residents in this state is to pay attention. We have a critical chance to recognize that multiple options doesn’t mean either one is worth the trouble. In fact, with two initiatives that essentially throw money at a problem that leaders refuse to address, we still don’t have a real solution for our transportation challenges and taxpayers still won’t have a voice in what improvements are made. Neither solution makes attempt to curb or change behaviors either. Both initiatives do the opposite by expanding roads for the growing number of solo drivers and excluding mass transit from using the funds generated. When there is a vision for transportation and transit that catapults or even inches us toward a more connected state or a more sustainable funding model, then vote yes. Until then, we cannot afford to mortgage our future or tax ourselves for more of the same.