When it comes to sustainability, roads are more important than compost

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Paul Danish

As a matter of full disclosure, Paul Danish is currently running for County Commissioner. Should any other candidates for County Commissioner or current Commissioners desire equal space on this issue it will be provided by Boulder Weekly.

Boulder County has four separate open space sales taxes. The oldest and largest, a quarter cent (0.25 cent) on the dollar approved by the voters in 1993 and extended by them in 1999, is due to expire at the end of 2019. It currently generates $13 million a year.

The current County Commissioners are likely to ask the voters this November to extend the tax for another 15 years, only this time with half of it (0.125 cent) being retained for open space and the other half being dedicated to “sustainability programs.”
They got half of it right. Give them credit for that much.

The Commissioners are correct to ask the voters to extend the tax and to reduce the open space component of it to an eighth of a cent on the dollar. They are wrong to ask the voters to earmark the remaining eighth of a cent for “sustainability programs.” The latter money should be spent on roads.

But first consider the open space component.

Boulder County currently owns outright or has purchased the development rights (called conservation easements) on 103,000 acres. The Parks and Open Space Department’s recently completed strategic vision plan calls for the purchase of only 2,500 acres over the next five years. In other words, the acquisition phase of the County open space program is winding down.

The reduced tax will provide ample funds for these acquisitions, and still generate substantial additional revenues for maintenance and management of the county’s current open space holdings.

The maintenance and management piece is critical because Boulder County’s population is growing fast and pressures are mounting for opening up a lot of open space areas for more intensive recreational uses, like hiking, biking and equestrian activities.

These lands must be managed more like parks than open space, and that costs money. The reduced tax will still bring in a conservatively estimated $100 million over its 15-year life. That should be enough for both acquisition and maintenance.

But while the Commissioners are getting the open space part of the proposed tax extension right, what they want to do with the other half is another matter.

The current board wants to use it for “sustainability programs.” The proper use is for roads and transportation.

In the four and a half years ending on July 1, 2015, Boulder County’s population grew by more than 25,000. It will probably grow by another 25,000 (to 320,000) by the end of 2020. There has been zero interest in the county’s cities, including Boulder, in doing anything to slow growth.

The increased congestion and deterioration of the county road network is self-evident.

“Sustainability” is one of those words that can mean all things to all people. The current Commissioners define it in terms of programs like recycling, composting, energy conservation, bus shelters and bike lanes (all of which currently receive County funding). While widely popular, their contribution to sustaining Boulder County’s quality of life and economic health occurs only at the margin.

I’d argue that the single most important thing County government can do to sustain Boulder County’s quality of life is maintain a road network that is adequate to meet the needs of its exploding number of residents and the traffic they generate — and do it in a way that doesn’t require the County to pave over paradise.

In order for this to happen the County must do several things, including

1) up its road maintenance game by overlaying and repaving existing roads more often than it does now to reflect their increased use,

2) add shoulders and turn-lanes to existing roads that are carrying increased traffic volumes,

3) as a last resort add lanes to the most heavily travelled and dangerous two-lane roads,

4) turn Boulder County into an early adopter of semi-autonomous and self-driving vehicles and install the sensors and communication infrastructure to create smart roads

5) partner with companies like Uber and Lyft, whose business is enabling private car owners to become for-hire trip providers, to increase their presence in the county and get enough drivers on the streets for their services to become a real transportation alternative.

In the past, Boulder County has relied on state and federal funding for much of its capital spending on highways, which explains why improvements have taken place at a glacial pace. (It took about 20 years to four-lane U.S. 287 between Longmont and Broomfield, for example.) The state of Colorado has about three times more road and bridge projects on its plate than it has money for. That explains why the State privatized U.S. 36 and started turning it back into a toll road.

The truth is, when it comes to maintaining and improving its highway infrastructure, Boulder County is largely on its own.
It may be politically incorrect to say it, but when it comes to genuine sustainability in Boulder County, roads are more important than compost.

Boulder County taxpayers have made a massive investment in open space that has kept the County from being overrun by urban sprawl. Now the time has come for the County to increase its investment in its road network to keep us from being paralyzed by gridlock. A re-purposed one-eighth cent sales tax that will raise $100 million in 15 years is a good place to start.

County commissioners were originally called County Road Commissioners — and the core responsibility of the office was to maintain the county roads in their districts. Today’s commissioners should devote more attention to the oldest part of their job description — starting with asking the taxpayers to give them the resources to do the job.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

  • In 2013, Boulder county voters rejected the commissioners’ County Subdivision Paving Public Improvement District tax. The commissioners retaliated by forcing a Local Improvement District on unincorporated county property owners without a vote, slapping a lien on our houses – in my case totaling thousands of dollars.

    Boulder County Fairness in Road Maintenance (BOCOFirm) fought it in court and the judge found that not only was the LID illegally implemented, Judge Lowenbach wrote that, “property owners whose roads were accepted for maintenance by the county understood that term to include all activities necessary for upkeep of roads. While it clearly had the duty to maintain those roads, the county did not perform that duty.”

    The County claims lack of funds, but again, thanks to BOCOFirm filing multiple Colorado Open Record Act requests, it learned that – through fires and floods – county coffers have averaged nearly $200 million at the end of every month from 2009 through 2015. Simply applying $5 million a year for five years to subdivision road maintenance would go a long way toward rectifying the problem the commissioners have caused.

    Turns out that citizens have “no legal standing” when it comes to compelling elected government officials to fulfill their obligations. That leaves the ballot box and luckily, former commissioner Paul Danish has entered the race to unseat Deb Gardner. Mr. Danish told me earlier this week, “This problem is manageable within county budgets as they are.”

    He has my vote.

    • Sandpiper

      Paul Danish has my vote as well, and I can hardly wait to give it to him. My recollection from 2013 was when the Boulder County Commissioners put the subdivision paving PID on the ballot, they also stated that if it was voted down, they would then implement a no-vote LID which would be more expensive than the PID. That sounded a lot like voter intimidation to me. I voted no on the PID. When the PID failed on the ballot, our house was promptly slapped with a lien for thousands of dollars. When we bought our house 16 years ago, it was not disclosed in the purchase papers that we would be required to pay for our own road paving.

      This was an outrageous show of the political power the current commissioners have enjoyed for years, and it must come to an end. There are multiple issues and situations throughout Boulder County in which the commissioners have overstepped the bounds of the authority vested in them by the public and their office. The mistrust and animosity they have engendered over the years has done immeasurable damage to the title of ‘Boulder County Commissioner’.

      I fully support BoCoFirm and their mission of fairness in road maintenance. I’m grateful they are out there fighting for this fairness. My question to the current Commissioners is this: Since Boulder County owns the Boulder county roads, then it follows that you maintain what you own, correct? I maintain my property, and you should maintain yours.

    • PaddyO’Furniture

      Just a heads up… The county is messing with the CORA requirements – they’re trying to make them harder and more expensive for individuals and groups to compete. Sounds like something the Boulder Weekly should look into.

  • CXW

    Don and Sandpiper – thanks for the support of BoCo FIRM’s efforts to get our roads paved without new taxes. The county needs to correct the problem they alone caused.

  • RAF

    I was expecting, from the title, to read some sort of argument about how maintaining the roads increases the efficiency of travel, allows multiple uses, and is better overall for our carbon footprint, that type of thing. This article actually makes no sustainability arguments at all (other than to re-purpose the word ‘sustainability’ to mean something other than it’s widely accepted meaning). I think the county should maintain the roads, and it’s outrageous that they don’t, but the case that they should take precedence over other programs -specifically for environmental reasons- doesn’t hold water. It’s a quality of life (and safety) issue, sure, but this is the wrong way to frame the argument.

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