Will Hancock Fund 21st Century Transportation or Kick the Can on Street Repair?

A rendering of a redesigned 21st Street, which is one project up for bond funding. Image: Community Planning and Development.
A rendering of a redesigned 21st Street, which is one project up for bond funding. Image: Community Planning and Development.

Members of the citizen-led committee tasked with drafting a project list for as much as $500 million in transportation spending spent Thursday evening in an intense round of horse-trading.

Will the bond measure heading to voters in November fund the 21st Street urban trail or a rebuild of West 13th Avenue? The Speer-Leetsdale transit corridor or safety upgrades to East Colfax Avenue? Almost all of the projects under consideration worth funding, but the committee still has to prioritize.

Hanging over the whole debate, however, is a question that’s beyond their control: Will the Hancock administration cannibalize transformational projects by spending this one-time infusion of funds on routine road maintenance instead?

Denver needs to break the habit of procrastinating on maintenance while costs mount. Using the bond funding to catch up on basic repairs will only enable bad spending practices to continue, while delaying badly-needed investments in transit and safe streets.

It’s clear that the mayor’s office wants to spend a chunk of the bond revenue to catch up on paving, gutter work, and bridge rehab. It’s unclear how much. The city is about $227 million behind on street maintenance, according to Denver Public Works [PDF].

Several committee members want to spend bond money solely on new projects that will improve Denver’s lackluster transit, walking, and biking networks — not on maintenance ignored by the city for years.

Getting out of the cycle of shortchanging maintenance requires a structural change to the city’s annual budgeting practices, said Piep van Heuven, Bicycle Colorado’s Denver director and a member of the task force.

“The systemic change will not happen until groups like this stand up and say we represent the community needs and the community values,” she said. “This is a values-based job that we have. What we value as a community is mobility, what we value as a community is these projects.”

John Desmond, vice president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, said spending the bond on faster transit and protected bike lanes is essential at a moment of “transformational opportunity.” Maintenance needs to be funded, he said, but the once-a-decade bond measure is not the way to do it.

Ten years ago, the city spent 47 percent of the entire bond on deferred maintenance, noted Evan Dreyer, Hancock’s deputy chief of staff. Now the city is asking for more once again, while a plethora of more visionary plans for walkable neighborhoods and multimodal streets sit unfunded.

“We have to figure out a way to pay for deferred maintenance,” Dreyer told the committee. “We hear you loud and clear when you say that maybe we need to find a different revenue source for that. But we also have this opportunity and we have tremendous need. So it’s difficult to sit quietly and hear folks talk about zero percent [going] to deferred maintenance. So I would, on behalf of the mayor, ask you to try to find a bit of a balance.”

The committee voted to recommend $50 million, an estimated 10 percent of the transportation share of the bond, to deferred maintenance projects. That total was too much for some.

“I don’t find it persuasive that other cities do this,” said WalkDenver associate director and committee member Jill Locantore. “We as a country have been under-funding our infrastructure and it’s not sustainable. I think Denver should be a leader on this and pursue a structural solution to a structural problem rather than continue to put a Band-Aid on it.”

After the transportation committee finalizes its recommendations, the executive committee will weigh those projects against ones for the arts, public safety, parks, and city facilities. Then it’s up to Hancock and the City Council to approve a project list that will be put to voters.