Roads: Too many, too bad, perhaps too late?

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Potholes can threaten the health of a driver, financially and otherwise. The city of Colorado Springs could use help updating its streets and roads.

Potholes can threaten the health of a driver, financially and otherwise. The city of Colorado Springs could use help updating its streets and roads.

On the highway to hell

Highway to hell

I’m on the highway to hell

And I’m goin’ down

All the way  AC/DC, 1980

Too bad AC/DC lead vocalist Bon Scott is no longer with us. Were we so blessed, he might confirm that the Highway to Hell could be any of a hundred major arterials in the city of Colorado Springs.

Try driving West Uintah Street between Nevada Avenue and 30th Street, especially in a once-sporty convertible with wide, low-profile tires. The roadway is rutted, potholed, uneven, and perilous to your health (financial and otherwise). To drive it is to participate in an intricate dance, swerving nervously as you attempt to avoid road hazards, pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles.

You look enviously as giant, bullying SUVs cruise over the rugged terrain, and wonder whether Colorado Springs is the only city in America where on-road driving demands off-road capabilities.

Why are the roads so bad? You can list any number of alleged reasons.

• Taxes are too low. The cheapskate residents won’t pay for anything, and that includes roads. The city has struggled valiantly to make every dollar count, but (to twist around the old saying) you can’t make an omelet without eggs. Roads cost money, whether to build, maintain or repair, and there isn’t enough. Think of your own budget: If your house needs painting and you can’t afford the paint, you can’t paint the house. All we need are higher taxes, more debt or some combination of both and bingo! Problem solved.

• Incompetent government. City employees are mainly overpaid pencil-pushers (OK, keyboard-strokers) who sit at their desks and write tedious memoranda that no one will ever read, formulate plans that no one will ever execute, and eventually collect pensions that none of us could ever dream of. Trim the deadwood, toss out the bureaucrats, privatize everything and bingo! Problem solved.

• It’s all Mayor Steve Bach’s/City Council’s fault. He is/they are more interested in fighting and obstructing progress than in doing the right thing for city residents. If he’d/they’d just get out of the way, we’d be just fine. So wait till city elections in 2015 and throw him/them out. Bingo! Problem solved.

• The problem is exaggerated. An exceptionally nasty winter caused a lot of potholes, but the city will have them all patched by the end of summer. Besides, these billion-dollar infrastructure backlog numbers are nothing but engineering wish lists that don’t correspond to reality. We’re a Wal-Mart city, not a Saks Fifth Avenue metropolis — we don’t need fancy, expensive fixes. Forget the chateaubriand and Chivas Regal! Give us a burger and a beer and bingo! Problem solved.

The actual cause

But the real problem is simple and insoluble: too many roads. With an area of 195 square miles, the city has 7,431 roadway lane-miles. It’s a problem that many medium-sized municipalities have wrestled with as suburban growth, convoluted tax structures, and taxophobic residents have created a perfect storm of deferred maintenance.

Take Tulsa, Okla. Its problems were very similar to ours: deteriorating infrastructure, conservative voters, years of buck-passing and political gridlock. Tulsa is just as spread out as Colorado Springs, with fewer than 400,000 residents occupying 186 square miles.

Yet Tulsans put aside the blame game in 2008 and passed a $451.6 million infrastructure funding package, combining a general obligation bond issue with a 1/3-penny sales tax.

Five years later, Tulsans doubled down in 2013, extending the sales tax to raise another $563.7 million and passing a $355 million streets and bridges bond issue. That’s a total of $1.37 billion — and the 2013 issues passed with more than 70 percent approval.

How did Tulsa do it?

To begin with, they took their time. For the two years preceding the election, community leaders sent out surveys, convened study groups, hosted town halls and initiated community discussions. They used striking and easily understandable examples to illustrate the problems, rather than relying on number-heavy talking points. Here’s one that we could steal, lifted from the support group’s website:

“Today, there are enough lane miles of streets in the City of Tulsa to stretch from New York to Los Angeles and back to Tulsa, with 500 miles to spare, and with a signalized intersection every 10 miles along the way.”

They also explained the persistent funding shortfall clearly and simply.

“Tulsa streets are the casualty of severe, ongoing shortfalls in terms of new construction, maintenance and repair to the sum of approximately $1.6 billion according to a recent study conducted by a citizens’ panel. For decades, these funding shortfalls have led to a steady decline in new construction and ongoing maintenance. 

“Oklahoma municipalities are in the unfortunate position of forced reliance on the sales tax for operating revenue. Meanwhile the state, Oklahoma’s 77 counties and many school districts enjoy the benefit of diversified and less volatile revenue streams such as the property tax.

“Despite municipalities’ almost sole reliance on sales taxes, counties have also reached into the pie by passing initiatives utilizing sales tax. Although cities across the state have begun to reach maximum tolerance levels with citizens on sales tax increases, they continue to face increased demands for services as the state and county pass on more of the funding burden and unfunded mandates.”

Similar situation here

Sound familiar? Many of the same talking points apply with equal force to Colorado Springs, but Mayor Bach’s efforts to communicate the gravity of the city’s infrastructure problems haven’t gained much traction. They’ve been overshadowed by the work of the stormwater task force, whose members have perfectly replicated the Tulsa model.

“I hadn’t heard of Tulsa’s success,” said Val Snider, City Council’s representative on the stormwater task force, “but that’s the approach we’ve followed.”

Following voter approval of the second round of funding, Tulsa business leaders were described by the Tulsa World as “ecstatic.”

“I thought it would win by a significant margin, but I had no idea it would be like this,” said Tulsa Regional Chamber CEO Mike Neal. “I think it says something about the job Mayor (Dewey) Bartlett and the City Council did in developing the package and presenting it to the public. We all realize we live in a world that’s very negative toward taxes. To win by this margin says people believe in this city and are willing to make investments in public infrastructure.”

Given today’s divided and quarrelsome city government, it’s difficult to imagine a similar scenario, but Snider believes that the voters can and will cut through the local fog of war.

“I know that (Chief of Staff) Steve Cox and the mayor believe that if the regional stormwater initiative passes, the voters won’t support a subsequent infrastructure initiative,” Snider said, “but I think they will. If we take time to educate the public, I think both will pass.”

There’s little doubt that Springs residents are painfully aware of the deteriorated condition of the roads.

“I get hundreds of emails every day,” Mayor Bach remarked, “and there are a lot more about roads than about stormwater.”

And if Tulsa’s experience with infrastructure funding is any guide, voters can separate politics from potholes.

In the same 2013 election that voters approved a $918 million infrastructure funding package, Tulsans were treated to a strikingly bitter, expensive mayoral race.

Incumbent Mayor Bartlett was opposed by former Mayor Kathy Taylor, who spent $3.32 million on her campaign. Bartlett prevailed, with a mere $958,291 in his war chest.

Tulsa’s city charter, like ours, mandates a runoff election between the two leading candidates if no single candidate gets a majority. The difference? The first round is in April, and the runoff is the following November.

In that respect, at least, Colorado Springs could teach Tulsa a thing or two.