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.