CDOT pounced on an opportunity to reshape Transportation Planning Regions, but some say the move flouts Colorado’s Constitution

The late addition of an amendment to a bill expanding a free transit ridership program established last year has some officials concerned about how it could reduce funding for projects in Colorado’s rural communities.

House Bill 23-1101 was meant to expand opportunities for transit agencies to participate in the state’s Free Fares for Clean Air program, but an amendment from bill sponsor Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, has some people questioning the constitutionality of the legislation.

The amendment, which Winter indicated on Feb. 27 came at the request of the Colorado Department of Transportation, would require the state Transportation Commission to change how Transportation Planning Regions are drawn with more of an emphasis on population.

These groups consider projects within the region, and 10 of them are represented on the larger Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the Transportation Commission about where funding should flow. The other five are Metro Planning Organizations.

Steamboat Springs City Council member Heather Sloop, who chairs the five-county Northwest TPR and is vice-chair of the Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee, sounded an alarm about the amendment at council’s meeting on Tuesday, March 7.

“This could kill all rural TPRs in rural Colorado,” Sloop said. “Our voice would be silenced.”

The bill had already passed the Colorado House before the amendment was added without discussion during a Senate Transportation and Energy Committee meeting on Feb. 27.

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon who does not sit on that committee, bucked his party to vote against the bill with 10 Republicans in the Senate, but it still passed 23-11 on March 3.

That sent it back to the House, where a vote on whether to accept the Senate’s amendments or send it to conference committee to iron out differences has been delayed. Roberts, who represents Routt County in the state Senate, said he is concerned about how this could impact rural transportation funding and how this amendment was brought up.

“We have a rule in the Colorado Legislature that bills need to stay confined to a single subject as defined by the title of the bill,” Roberts said. “It clearly does not fit under the title of the bill, which is a much more narrow topic.”

In a statement to Steamboat Pilot & Today, CDOT Communications Director Matt Inzeo defended the amendment, saying it is “fundamentally inaccurate” to say the purpose of this is to take funding or representation away from rural communities.

“In fact, this amendment helps rural Colorado,” Inzeo said.

Pressed to explain why CDOT pursued the amendment as part of this bill, Inzeo said the conversation about allowing transit agencies to be voting members in TPRs was talked about last summer, and when TPRs were mentioned in this bill, it created an opportunity to make more changes.

“Once TPRs were a subheading of the bill, the opportunity presented itself for other TPR language as the bill moved to the Senate,” Inzeo wrote in an email. “The live dynamics of a legislative session become a lot about opportunity, and this one presented itself.”

Roberts said the introduction of the amendment was done “less than transparently” and it is “causing a good bill to become a major problem.”

“It’s definitely outside the norm of the way we normally do things at the legislature of sticking very strict to the single subject rule,” Roberts said. “If we want to have that conversation about redrawing TPRs, I believe it should be done in a separate bill with a full stake-holding process out in the open and the ability to get feedback all over the state.”

State Rep. Meghan Lukens, a Democrat from Steamboat Springs, said she hopes the amendment does not pass the House and she is advocating for significant changes.

“We should have these discussions separately and not tie them together in this unrelated legislation, which is intended to improve a successful ozone transit grant program that funds free rides on public transit,” Lukens said.

Despite CDOT’s assertion the amendment is proper for the bill, former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush has argued it’s unconstitutional.

In an email on Wednesday, an official in Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office said they were not asked to weigh in on the constitutionality of the bill after the amendment was added.

“Given this amendment’s potential violation of the Colorado Constitution’s single subject requirement, our office is presently weighing its ability to defend HB23-1101 in court if and when it is challenged as unconstitutional,” said Lawrence Pacheco, chief communications officer for the state attorney general.

Colorado has 15 Transportation Planning Regions, 10 of them with a seat on the larger Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the state’s Transportation Commission about project funding.
Colorado Department of Transportation/Courtesy photo

Still, not everyone across the state is opposed to revisiting the structure of TPRs, and it isn’t a divide solely between rural and urban Colorado.

After sending questions to CDOT, the Steamboat Pilot & Today received two unsolicited calls from officials that are open to or support the amendment. Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said he doesn’t believe the TPR that includes his community, the Intermountain TPR, has served them well.

Godes said he wasn’t familiar enough with the legislative rules to comment on the process in which the amendment was added, but he believes a larger conversation is needed.

While the Intermountain TPR has the same representation on Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee as others, the Intermountain TPR represents two to three times as many people. The Intermountain TPR includes about 169,000 residents, where others like the South Central TPR include less than 21,000.

“I don’t want to fight or have a zero-sum game with the rest of the rural communities,” Godes said. “It feels like we need to make things among rural Colorado an open, honest conversation about what geographic areas still make sense since these boundaries were drawn up 30 years ago.”

Larimer County Commissioner Kristen Stevens said she supports the amendment’s concept, adding that the Upper Front Range TPR includes vastly different communities such as Estes Park and Fort Morgan.

“We’re talking about a mountainous rural community that’s lumped in with a very Eastern Plains community,” Stevens said. “I think there’s some myths about what this amendment would do, and I don’t think the idea is to throw everything away or not have rural representation.”

Inzeo said the purpose of the amendment is to “start the public process to take a fresh look at these boundaries and make sure all residents of rural Colorado are getting fair representation in the transportation planning process.”

But Mitsch Bush said the TPRs were never designed to be based on population because many parts of the state have a disproportionately larger share of the state’s roads. These roads are vital to resort economies and are used by more than rural residents, she said.    

“Colorado’s economy, I think, will be harmed by this in that we are already trying to compete with Utah that has much more transportation funding than we do, has far better roads than we do,” Mitsch Bush said.

Roberts said he hopes the Senate amendments will be rejected by the House, forcing a conference committee that he hopes will strip the bill of the amendment. If the bill passes, Roberts said, the next course of action would be to ask Gov. Jared Polis to veto it.

Asked whether Polis is considering using that power, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said, “The governor will review bills as they move through the process and is confident CDOT and our rural communities can resolve this issue.”

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