Vail-area state Rep. Hamner sees Interstate 70 bill pass final House vote

Debate still raging over FASTER vehicle registration fees

By David O. Williams
Real AspenFebruary 24, 2011
The Vail Valley's state Rep., Millie Hamner, saw two of her bills pass by overwhelming margins in the state House Wednesday, including one focused on finding short-term solutions to mounting traffic issues on the Interstate 70 corridor.

While the battle over controversial FASTER vehicle registration fees rages on in the House, Hamner, D-Dillon – whose legislative predecessors made a priority of transportation funding – is pushing hard to find solutions for the growing gridlock along I-70.

Hamner, who was appointed to replace Christine Scanlan when she took a key post in Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration, is following in Scanlan's footsteps by shepherding through a bill aimed at compelling the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to find short-term fixes for traffic congestion along the critical east-west corridor into the mountains – and ways to pay for them.
House Bill 1210 (pdf), which passed 50-14 on final reading in the House Wednesday, requires CDOT to come up with a list of short-term priorities to improve mobility on I-70, including costs and possible funding mechanisms. The bill also provides for public hearings on the various options, which presumably could include last year's oft-discussed “zipper lanes.”

Traffic experts have floated a number of other ideas, from tolling to widening to more park and rides to increased public transportation. For instance, SkiBusColorado on Wednesday announced a partnership with Vail Resorts offering Saturday bus rides and lift tickets to Keystone and Breckenridge. The service will pick up from Breeze Ski Rentals and Colorado Ski and Golf stores in Littleton, Lakewood and Aurora and is endorsed by the nonprofit I-70 Coalition.

“While working toward a long-term solution, the I-70 Coalition is also focused on short-term strategies that will more immediately ease I-70 congestion,” said Margaret Bowes, program manager for the I-70 Coalition. “The use of buses to transport skiers to resorts along the I-70 corridor is a step in the right direction. “

Hamner clearly recognizes big-ticket fixes like high-speed rail are likely decades away.

“Tourists and residents alike are affected by I-70 traffic,” Hamner said Wednesday. “While long-term structural solutions are needed, they are also expensive. However, this will help us to find innovative and cost-effective ideas to relieve congestion now. This bill makes sure we stay focused on finding short-term solutions in the meantime.”

Scanlan was a key high-country House ally of former state Sen. Dan Gibbs, a Silverthorne Democrat whom she replaced in the House. Gibbs got FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery) passed back in 2009, raising vehicle registration fees to pay for badly needed road and bridge improvements, including 128 bridges deemed structurally deficient at the time.

Many Republicans railed on FASTER as a backdoor tax, and it became a Tea Party rallying cry leading up to the 2010 election. Democrats beat back an attempt by Republicans last week to eliminate FASTER altogether, killing Senate Bill 95 (pdf) in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

“This was our opportunity to be responsive to the people of Colorado who have been demanding that we repeal the increased vehicle registration fees,” SB 95 sponsor Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, said in a release Wednesday.

Now Grantham is the Senate sponsor of House Bill 1084 (pdf), which would at least roll back the mandatory late fees of up to $100 imposed under FASTER. Those late fees have provided an unexpected windfall of about $30 million a year for state transportation projects, but have drawn heated fire from motorists who fail to register their vehicles on time. The old late fee was $10.

Sponsored by Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, HB 1084 will likely make it out of the GOP-controlled House but die in the Democrat-controlled Senate. During last week's broader debate over repealing FASTER altogether, the increase in registration fees – originally projected to provide CDOT about $250 million a year in additional funding – was portrayed as both a life-saver and a job-saver.

“FASTER helps us reduce crashes and fatalities on Colorado's highways, and keep the public safe from failing roads and bridges,” CDOT chief engineer Pam Hutton told the committee. “It goes to our core function of maintaining critical infrastructure and keeping the public safe.”

Tony Milo, the executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, hailed FASTER as job-creating legislation during a brutal recession.

“FASTER has created about 7,000 jobs since its passage in 2009,” Milo said. “Senate Bill 95 would have eliminated many of these jobs and stopped the forward progress of needed infrastructure projects just when the economy is starting to show signs of improvement.”

Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, last year blasted FASTER because it wasn't generating anticipated revenues or delivering infrastructure improvement quickly enough – something CDOT attributed mostly to the ongoing recession.

“[FASTER] was an absolute farce … It is a problem from a public trust standpoint,” Kopp told members of the joint and House and Senate Transportation Committee during a hearing last session. “The bill was positioned as a way to fix bridges that were in urgent need of repair and to create jobs.”

The other bill Hamner got passed Wednesday was House Bill 1071, which cleared the House by a 52-12 margin and creates a tax check-off to help fund Roundup River Ranch – an Eagle County camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses.

“This bill will help give Coloradans a chance to contribute to the Roundup River Ranch, a wonderful organization that will help children with life-threatening illnesses experience the great outdoors in a safe and medically supported environment,” Hamner said., citing an assessment in 2006 that showed that more than 35,000 children in the Rocky Mountain region suffer from a life-threatening illness.

The study found that ore than 85 percent of the children don't have the opportunity to attend camp because of their physical limitations. Roundup River Ranch is a provisional member of the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, founded in 1988 by Paul Newman.

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