Guest Columns

CML: 2014 STATE OF OUR CITIES AND TOWNS

Heard on the street: funding for local transit projects remains budgetary challenge

By Marc Williams and Sam Mamet

We walk, bike, drive, ride the bus, and sometimes skateboard on our streets, and unless there’s a pothole ahead, we don’t give it much thought. Our street structure is society’s circulatory system and it’s time we looked at its medical chart. Frostbite? Pavement decay? Internal injuries? There are always problems that need attention. Street maintenance and construction are primary services provided by Colorado’s municipalities. There are nearly 16,000 miles of city streets in Colorado — 25 percent more than just a decade ago. That’s a lot of miles to pave, stripes to paint, and potholes to fill. But every mile is essential to deliver groceries to the store on the corner, to get your children to school, to connect you to work and return you safely back home at the end of the day.

We need to be looking closely at the health of our streets — how well we maintain our transportation system and how well we expend it to meet today’s needs. The recently-released 2014 Colorado Municipal League’s State of our Cities and Towns report is based on a survey of municipalities large and small from across the state. The survey results show that while municipal budgets are rebounding following the Great Recession, only 41 percent of cities and towns have once again fully funded their street maintenance budgets. Nine out of ten municipalities list street maintenance as a budgetary challenge, while just over half list it as their number one budgetary challenge. Beyond maintaining what we have, the need for expanding and upgrading the system exceeds the dollars available. Fifty-seven percent of municipalities report having major street projects awaiting funding; 30 percent have bridge projects awaiting funding; 27 percent have bicycle projects, and 40 percent have pedestrian projects. There is much work to be done.

Additionally, transit is playing a larger role in our mobility. Forty-five percent of municipalities are now served by some level of transit services, either scheduled bus routes or paratransit on-call services. Streets also reflect the changing complexion of transportation in Colorado. Cities are reconfiguring streets to be bicycle and pedestrian friendly as these alternatives to the automobile grow in popularity. Among the larger cities there is an average of 64 miles of on-street bike lanes and 69 miles of off-street bike paths.

Municipal transportation is funded primarily by city tax revenues and the municipal share of the Highway Users Tax Fund (HUTF). The gasoline tax is the principal revenue stream for HUTF — based on a theory that users pay for the roads. Our lack of attention to properly fund transportation is impacting our ability to maintain and improve the system. Colorado’s gasoline tax has been frozen in time since 1991. The 22-cents a gallon collected today has only 40 percent of the buying power of the same 22-cents collected in 1991. The price of a gallon of gasoline has more than doubled in that time period. Colorado’s population in 1990 was 3.3 million and has risen to 5.1 million today. Everything has changed in twenty years… everything except the gas tax, that is.

As Colorado transportation options expand, streets remain at the core of transportation. Trucks, cars, busses, bikes, and pedestrians all use the street corridor to move about. We need safe and functional streets. They will be our society’s lifeblood for a long time to come.

Marc Williams is Colorado Municipal League’s executive board president and City of Arvada mayor. Sam Mamet is the executive director of CML.