Believe it or not, in many U.S. states one of the biggest obstacles to active transportation is in the constitution.
Embedded in the constitutions of 22 U.S. states are bans on spending gas tax revenues and/or vehicle registration fees on anything but highways and bridges. That means no matter how much practical value a sidewalk, busway, or bike lane would add, those projects must go begging for funds.
But thanks to the efforts of a broad coalition in Colorado, the number of states with constitutional restrictions on sustainable transportation spending is about to fall to 21. Governor John Hickenlooper will sign a bill tomorrow that opens up $250 million a year in state gas tax revenue to walking, biking, and transit projects.
Colorado-based transit and environmental advocates found a way to overcome the ban without the monumental effort and expense of a statewide referendum. And they’re eyeing six other states around the Southwest with hopes for a repeat or two.
Colorado’s constitutional amendment — passed in 1935 — states that gas tax revenues and vehicle registration fees can only be spent on highways and bridges. To make matters worse, the state had always depended on a narrow reading of the term “highways” to exclude local roads, sidewalks, and bike infrastructure, as well as transit.
Rather than try to overturn the rule, advocates in Colorado simply challenged the way it was being interpreted, said Will Toor, a former mayor of Boulder who helped lead the campaign as director of transportation at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.
“Fifteen years ago, a group of us began making the argument that that was really an inappropriately narrow interpretation,” said Toor. “There are other places in the constitution that describe railroads as highways of the state.”
In 2009, a coalition of transit advocates had a small breakthrough. The Colorado legislature wanted to pass a new vehicle registration fee, but lawmakers needed the political support of transit advocates. The transit coalition was able to win a small, but important, fraction of the funding for transit – just $15 million out of $1.2 billion.