Why roads matter

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Paul Danish

According to a story in last Monday’s Daily Camera, the town of Erie is about to annex 230 acres south of the town for residential development.

Judging by the residential densities shown in the Erie comprehensive plan, the property, which is located at Baseline and East County Line Road, will likely end up with between 900 and 1,300 homes.

Generally speaking, a single family home generates 10 automobile trips a day, so the Erie project will likely generate between 9,000 and 13,000 trips a day.

The same issue of the Camera contained a second story that mentioned, in passing, that Superior has a 1,400-home residential project in the mill for the town center. Figure another 14,000 vehicle trips per day.

And that is just the development reported in a single issue of a newspaper.
Judging by major projects under construction in the 95th Street corridor, Boulder’s on-going attempts to increase its residential density, and the fact that Boulder County will likely add another 20,000 people to its population in the next four years (raising it to around 340,000), new growth could easily generate an additional 150,000 trips a day on county roads by 2020.

This isn’t about the wisdom of this sort of growth. Its about the reality of it.
And about why it’s so urgent to put more resources into Boulder County’s road network — and why the County Commissioners’ decision to ask the voters to repurpose part of an expiring open space tax for “sustainability” projects instead of roads is recklessly irresponsible.

It’s no secret that I’m currently running for County Commissioner and that roads have become a major campaign issue. Here’s how it has unfolded from my perspective. (Hopefully Boulder Weekly will renew its offer to the present Commissioners to present their side of the issue.)

Last July, I proposed that Boulder County voters be asked to repurpose one half of a quarter-cent county open space tax due to expire at the end of 2019 for roads. I proposed extending the tax for 20 years, which means it would conservatively raise about $140 million over its lifetime. This would allow spending on roads to be increased substantially while not increasing the county’s overall tax burden.

The present Board of County Commissioners took a different approach. They proposed extending one-half of the expiring tax for 15 years (which would raise about $105 million) and ear-marking it not for roads but for (among other things) “sustainability” projects — which include recycling, composting, bus shelters and teaching farmers to conserve water.
Sustainability is a slippery word, but for purposes of the sustainability tax proposal sustainability means spending intended to combat climate change.

But — inconvenient truth alert — attempting to fight climate change, which is a global problem of staggering proportions, by throwing local tax dollars at it is like attempting to sweep back the sea with a whisk broom. In the fight against climate change, there is nothing Boulder County can accomplish by spending $105 million on “sustainability” that will not be cancelled out when The People’s Republic of China opens another coal-fired power plant — which it will likely do next week.

(A far better course of action for Boulder County would be to spend local tax dollars on adapting to climate change at the local level, which will accomplish far more and directly benefit Boulder County residents. More about that some other time.)

When it comes to reducing the local carbon footprint, a good road network that moves the county’s more than 250,000 cars and trucks more efficiently will likely do more than all the money spent on recycling, composting and bus shelters combined.

The present commissioners would respond to this by saying they are not shorting roads, because they have put a road tax of their own on the ballot. Their proposal would raise $150 million over 15 years by raising property taxes. It would earmark $75 million for the County road network and $75 million for repairing the roads in county subdivisions. So if this proposal is passed the people can have both roads and compost.

The problem is the commissioners’ proposal contains two “poison pills” that are almost guaranteed to ensure its defeat, and their presence raises real questions as to whether the proposal was put on the ballot in good faith.

The first is that the proposal derives its revenues from an increase in the property tax, which is the most hated tax in America. The second is that it proposes to dedicate $75 million to fixing subdivision roads, which can be fixed for $25 million.

That’s not a formula for success at the polls, and its inconceivable the commissioners didn’t know it when they put the proposal on the ballot. They are not political naïfs. It’s a proposal cynically designed to fail for political purposes — like sticking it to the people who want their subdivision roads paved.

County Commissioners used to be called County Road Commissioners, and their core responsibility was to maintain the county roads in their districts. They ought to get back to the oldest part of the job description.

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

Since Paul Danish is running for County Commissioner, any current Commissioners are welcome to equal space in our newspaper.