Infrastructure needs grow into the billions

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The expansion of Woodmen Road is one of only a few Colorado Springs projects that will receive funding from state transportation money.

Just how big is the city’s backlog of unfunded capital improvement projects?

According to the city’s 2012 final budget document, it’s $2.8 billion.

That’s a lot of money, especially since the city’s 2012 general fund budget allocated only $13.7 million to CIP. At that rate, all the projects would be completed by October 2221 — and then our great-great-great grandchildren could get going on the projects that had accumulated since 2012. To make things worse, of that $13.7 million, $7.8 million was allocated to paying off debt, leaving $5.9 million for project funding.

Other sources fill in some of the gaps — but far from all of them.

Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority collects a 1 percent county-wide sales tax. When voters first approved the tax in 2004, 55 percent of the money was designated to fund specific transportation improvement projects. In 2012, $34.5 million in PPRTA capital funding went to city projects, but that figure will fall to zero in 2015 unless voters countywide extend the capital improvements portion of the tax this fall.

Grants, almost all from the much-despised federal government, brought in $25.3 million, but that figure is somewhat deceptive: $13.1 million was earmarked for taxiway rehabilitation at the airport, while other grants may reflect national legislative priorities, and usually require local matching funds of up to 20 percent.

The Conservation Trust Fund is funded by the state lottery, and its annual allocations must be spent on park-related development, renovation and maintenance. In 2012, the CTF provided $3.4 million to the capital improvements budget.

The 0.10 cent Trails, Parks, and Open Space tax will contribute $4.3 million to the overall CIP budget. Funds can only be used on parks, trails, and open space, and voter-mandated percentage allocations within those categories are strictly controlled. Unless renewed, the TOPS tax will expire in 2025.

Enterprises such as the Pikes Peak Highway, the airport and the golf courses generate funds that are used for capital improvements, but those funds cannot be applied to non-enterprise uses.

Including debt service, one-time grants and special purpose grants, the overall total is $87 million. Total funds actually applied to citywide capital improvement projects: about $48 million.

That may sound like a lot of money, but it won’t be enough to make a dent in the backlog. That’s partially because the unfunded backlog ($1.7 million) doesn’t include $251 million in urgent projects (see sidebar), which are slated to be funded during the next five years.

The city budget designates $1.7 billion as high-priority needs, with another $1.1 billion classified as medium priority. Even assuming that no projects on the medium list are ever funded (and that PPRTA is extended), it’ll take 42 years to complete the project list — a rate of 2.5 percent annually.

Unfortunately, the backlog will likely grow more rapidly than $48 million annually.

“The problem is that deferred maintenance creates more capital projects,” said former Vice Mayor Larry Small, “and time is not on our side. The city infrastructure keeps on aging, and current funding means that we just fall further and further behind.”

Small’s solution: a dedicated new tax.

“We had the half-cent capital improvements tax,” Small recalled, “but we lost that in 1991 [when city voters approved a Douglas Bruce-sponsored initiative phasing out the tax]. And in 2000, our property tax mill levy was over 7 mills but thanks to (the) Gallagher (amendment), it’s below 5.”

Small suggests that a ¾-cent city sales tax or a 3.7 mill property tax increase, as well as an extended PPRTA tax, would do the job. Either new tax would raise approximately $50 million Annually in additional CIP funds.

Mayor Steve Bach, who signed a “no new taxes” pledge circulated by Americans for Prosperity prior to his election, would be highly unlikely to support such levies, despite the city’s critical needs. He does support renewal of PPRTA — and AFP has given him a pass on that.

“We regard the PPRTA tax as the extension of an existing tax, not a new one,” said former City Councilor Sean Paige, who now works for AFP.

Bach has privately indicated that any proposals for new taxes ought to come via citizen initiative, not from government sources.

Councilor Brandy Williams said that the problems run deeper than insufficient funding.

“We’ve had real design problems,” said Williams, specifically mentioning a recently collapsed drainage structure in the Briargate development.

“That drainage way isn’t that old,” she said. “I know, because we used to run cattle on that property in 1980 before Briargate was developed. So it’s only 30 years old, and they just channelized the drainage straight down. What were they thinking? You have to work with nature, not fight it.”

Councilor Merv Bennett emphasized the problem’s complexity.

“I think that stormwater needs to be at the top of the list,” he said, “but most of these needs are interconnected. We’ve got to move to a new discussion (to find a solution).”

Asked to recommend a solution, Bennett was noncommittal.

“It can’t come from one person,” he said. “It has to come from the whole community.”

The list: Checking the city’s biggest and unusual needs

A careful reading of the city’s capital-needs project list, as published in the 2012 budget, uncovers some interesting anomalies — and a few howlers.

Consider this high-priority item:

“Platte Ave. over Shooks Run Bridge Replacement. Deteriorated condition of concrete arch built in 1092 $3.1 million.” (1092? Perhaps the arch was damaged when Genghis Khan besieged and sacked Colorado Springs in 1215 — or was that Beijing?). Misspellings and transposed letters (e.g., “recude” for reduce) are common throughout the list.

Project descriptions are brief and succinct, often describing structures as “Near the end of [their] service life.” What that estimated service life may be is never stated. In one case, when both the eastbound and westbound spans of a bridge on the city’s east side are included on the high-priority list, one side is described as having a service life “approximately 10 years more” than its companion.

The project selection/cost estimation process is necessarily somewhat inexact. One councilor, who refused to be quoted by name, simply said, “Do you have a dartboard?”

In fact, the list is so lengthy that preparing exact cost estimates for every project would cost many millions, money better spent on the projects themselves.

Yet some projects, especially those on the $1.1 billion medium priority list, appear to be highly questionable. One item accounts by itself for more than 10 percent of the $2.8 billion total.

“Constitution Ave. Extension Reconstruct/Extend as a four-lane parkway from Academy (to I-25) $295 million.”

Veterans of the Constitution Avenue wars during the 1990s will remember this ill-fated project. It was proposed as a way to ease the city’s chronic east-west mobility problems, but ran into a political firestorm of opposition from potentially affected city residents.

Opponents derided it as a sprawl-enabling nightmare that would radically devalue close-in neighborhoods to serve the interests of suburban commuters. A majority of councilors sided with them, and ordered the project shelved.

Former County Commissioner Marcy Morrison wasn’t surprised to learn of the project’s inclusion on the city CIP list.

“These things always have their supporters,” she said, “and keeping them on the list is a way of keeping them alive.”

Councilor Tim Leigh, asked about the project, responded by banging his head against a wall.

“Does that answer your question?” he asked.

Open-space advocate Lee Milner remembers the Constitution Avenue wars.

“The idea was to connect Centennial to the Fontanero interchange, and then link it to Constitution,” Milner said, “so now that they’re finally doing Fontanero/Centennial, maybe Constitution will re-surface.”

Dave Munger, who heads the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, scoffed at the idea.

“$295 million?” he said disbelievingly. “That won’t even pay for 10 percent of the cost.”

2 Responses to Infrastructure needs grow into the billions

  1. Councilor Leigh responds by “banging his head against a wall”. What an idiot. Does anyone take this man seriously?

    Kathy Lesmond
    September 18, 2012 at 9:47 pm

  2. PPACG has used $4B as the region’s maintenance backlog through 2035.

    Ray Krueger
    September 19, 2012 at 8:08 am