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July 31, 2015   |   Loveland Reporter-Herald - Saja Hindi

Senators push for long-term highway funding solutions

LOVELAND -- Colorado U.S. senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner are calling for the passage of a long-term highway trust fund bill to address what local officials call an overdue expansion of the north Interstate 25 corridor.

Congress passed a three-month extension of the highway trust fund Thursday, one day before its expiration. The Senate also passed a bipartisan longer-term funding bill for six years, but the House is on recess, so its votes will have to wait.

Gardner, a Republican who serves on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in an interview Friday that the bill is the longest-term highway funding bill that the Senate has passed since 2009.

The need for a longer-term solution is clear, he said. Before the latest extension, there had been 33 short-term extensions since 2009, Gardner said, and planning a highway expansion in three months just isn't feasible.

"The language I was able to secure in the bill really does pave the way for future expansion of I-25 north," Gardner said.

The bill includes a provision that requires funding decisions to be based on population growth, which Gardner said "will absolutely help Northern Colorado."

Interstate 25 has three lanes in each direction as far north as Colo. 66 in north Longmont. From that point north to the Wyoming border, it's two lanes each way.

At an event Friday afternoon calling for support for the extended bill, Colorado Department of Transportation's North I-25 Corridor manager Myron Hora said the traffic is expected to more than double on the highway by 2025, doubling commute times.

At the press event in Loveland, Bennet, a Democrat, and representatives from CDOT, the I-25 coalition, the Fix North I-25 Business Alliance, the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization and local elected officials discussed the bill and its significance.

North I-25 Coalition chairwoman and Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said the coalition started in September 2013, right before the flood.

"For the next six, seven weeks, we saw our future on I-25," Kirkmeyer said, referring to the traffic congestion and problems people faced commuting during and after the flood.

And that's why a change is needed, she and fellow representatives urged. They stressed the importance of their collaborative efforts to achieve results.

"Washington could learn something from the people standing behind me," Bennet said, adding that instead of fighting, when a problem arises, the officials came together to try to find a solution.

He said the federal government is spending less on transportation than it has in the past 50 years. The problem, he added, is that some leaders philosophically don't see infrastructure as a government responsibility. But for Bennet, it's fiscally irresponsible to ignore the nation's transportation and infrastructure needs.

The expansion of I-25, which officials say is the only interstate in Colorado that is considered a freight corridor, is a top priority for Colorado's leaders.

"This will be the start of ... dealing with the economic spine of not only Northern Colorado but the entire state of Colorado," said Sean Conway, Weld County commissioner and North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization chairman.

The extension is vital for the economic health and quality of life of all Coloradans, Gardner said in an interview. Whether it's current companies trying to conduct business on I-25 or new businesses looking to locate to the area, or families trying to commute to activities and work, north I-25 is a priority, he said.

Yvonne Myers, health systems director at Columbine Health Systems and a member of the Fix I-25 North Business Coalition, said the expansion is important to their employees and business operations.

They use the corridor extensively - delivering goods and services, serving meals and taking elderly clients on outings - and the employees live and work all over the region, Myers said. .

Bennet said while the Senate bill isn't perfect - for example, it ensures funding for only three of the six years - it's a start to achieving the needed sustainability for transportation funding.

As for making sure I-25 receives the funding it needs from federal dollars, Bennet said he knows the local coalitions and elected officials such as Conway "won't take no for an answer."

CDOT Transportation Commissioner Kathy Gilliland said that she's disappointed with the three-month extension because she's looking for long-term viability but is glad that longer-term solutions are in the works.

"We can't keep up this way ... always sitting on the edge," she said, adding that for her, an ideal solution would be to allocate funding eight to 10 years out.

 


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