by John Kiljan
Monday, August 15th, is the deadline for responding to the City of Arvada’s “Better Roads” online survey. This is a lot more important than a typical City survey. It’s a choice between avoiding a tax increase and having better roads. Here’s the link to the City survey if you want to take it now, but I suggest you read on a bit first and learn a little more about what’s being proposed and why.
Although most Arvadans will not take it, the survey may be the best indication the Arvada City Council is going to get on whether or not they should go to the voters in November to see if they want to increase the City’s current 3.00% general sales tax by another half percent (to 3.50%). The increase would be used for a combination of road improvements and increased street maintenance for at least the next ten years. A half-percent tax increase would mean paying an additional 50 cents on every $100 purchase made in the City. That would include purchases made at grocery stores as well.
And it would make Arvada’s combined sales tax rate the highest in Jefferson County. Arvada also levies a 0.46% police tax, and when adding in all the other sales taxes levied by the County, special districts and the State, the overall sales tax rate in Arvada would go from 7.96% to 8.46%.
WHY A NEW TAX?
Most citizens are adverse to sales tax increases. If I were a Council member, I would be reluctant to even offer a tax increase proposal unless I were fairly certain that’s what my constituents wanted. But recent citizen surveys show that residents have also become increasingly dissatisfied with the condition of the roads and growing traffic in Arvada.
And that dissatisfaction is in spite of the fact that impartial machine-based measurements of pavement distress and roughness show no overall pavement deterioration since 2012. So what has changed? What has really changed is people’s perception of how bad the streets are. There was a significant drop in satisfaction when the latest citizens’ survey was released in January of this year.
2015 Citizens’ Survey showing a dropping level of satisfaction with street repair. Two years earlier, the level was next to the snow removal rating.
I suspect there are several reasons for that dissatisfaction, and at the top of the list is congestion. People tend to lump congestion and road maintenance together when they respond to surveys. They also tend to lump together City streets and State highways.
Where I hear the most complaints about congestion and traffic are on State highways, on 72nd Avenue and on the Kipling Parkway. Those State highways are Sheridan, Wadsworth, SH 72 (Ward/64th/Indiana) and SH 93. CDOT has its own budget problems that the State Legislature has not been able to address. Despite a large increase in construction costs, there have been no State or federal gas tax increases in the last 20 years, and I’m not surprised to see it showing up in their roads. This new City sales tax money, if it happens, will not be going to State highways, either for new construction or for maintenance and repair.
New construction has delayed maintenance on the Kipling Parkway for some time, but it is now getting a two-month patching and overlay job since that construction has finished up. It should look, and ride, pretty nice when the work is done. The same thing happened to feeder streets such as Brooks Drive and Garrison Street near the park after its reconstruction had finished.
Ralston Road in central Arvada will always be a problem until it is widened. The outside lane is so narrow (8 feet) that the larger and heavier vehicles are forced to drive in the adjacent two-foot gutter pan, driving rainwater and snowmelt into the joint between the concrete and asphalt. It will always have a spring crop of potholes until that problem is addressed. Over the years, I’ve lost a couple of hubcaps on that road myself. Moreover, if reconstruction is imminent, crews will probably put off any major pavement repairs, since much of it will have to come out when the road is rebuilt.
SO HOW MUCH WILL RESIDENTS REALLY HAVE TO PAY?
What will that 0.50% increase cost a typical Arvada family each year? That would depend upon how much they shop in Arvada, of course. The City hasn’t made an official estimate yet. But to get a rough idea, I used the data that urban renewal used when figuring the benefits of the new housing project proposed for Ralston Creek North, which is scheduled to begin construction next year. Those numbers worked out to about $65 a year for a typical family. If you want to see the math, here’s a link to follow:
A GRIM FUTURE IS PREDICTED FOR CITY ROADS
Also pushing the tax measure forward is a warning from the City’s consultants that pavement condition ratings are soon expected to head steeply downward on our road condition surveys if more money is not put into preventative maintenance now. That’s where most of the $9 million-a-year figure that City Staff is asking for seems to be coming from.
And the consultant says that is just the money needed to keep the roads in the same overall condition they are in now. More funding would be needed to see a tangible improvement in overall pavement conditions over time. As far as I know, there has been no independent review of the consultant’s findings or the tie to the additional $9 million-a-year amount being asked for.
So, is this much money really what is needed? Is more needed? I don’t know the answers to those questions. Those questions are sort of like asking if a family really does need to pay for a lawn service for weekly lawn care, or should they wait until the yard is so full of weeds that it needs to be re-sodded entirely.
How much do similarly sized towns spend on road maintenance on a lane-mile basis and on new construction? I don’t know the answer to that question either, and there are so many variables when comparing Arvada to other cities, I’m not sure that information would even be useful even if it were available.
CAN WE EVEN SPEND THAT MUCH MONEY?
Nine million dollars would kick up the City’s annual road improvement budget quite a bit – to $16 million a year, more than double the $6 million or so we spend now. That’s a big increase. Can we even spend that surge in money for street maintenance fast enough? The short answer is, no we can’t. Well, not at first, anyway. Most of the needed work would have to be contracted out to private companies, and the City has been saying that they can’t staff up fast enough to handle the contracting and inspection demands in the first few years. And the available asphalt laying companies in the metro area may also need to gear up themselves with new equipment purchases – especially if the Colorado Legislature finally passes its own better roads bill.
But the City can spend all of what they take in by doing a series of the most-needed capital-improvement projects right away, and those would include new construction on Ralston Road and 72nd Avenue. After those, the City would be ready to pour most of the $9 million annual amount into the streets that are in the poorest condition. That approach seems to make sense, and it seems a lot better than letting the first monies sit in a bank waiting to be used.
A FAIR TAX?
Is this an equitable tax? The short answer to that is, no, it’s not. Sales taxes are some of the most regressive taxes there are. They tend to hit the poorest residents the hardest since those are the ones who have to spend the largest portion of their income on basic necessities, such as clothes and groceries. More to the point, those who use the roads the most are the ones who should be paying the most. A gas tax is very good at doing that, but, so far, no Colorado city has levied its own gas tax.
But there is a catch that makes a sales tax increase a lot fairer for Arvada’s least-well-off than it would first seem. The reason for that is that many of the people paying the tax will not be Arvada residents, but will instead be those from the County and nearby municipalities who shop in Arvada. Those people also use our roads to shop and to commute.
But if we were to do something else such as increase Arvada’s property tax rate (we are among the lowest in the metro area), only Arvada residents would be paying that tax. Those outside the City would get a free ride (figuratively speaking). And Arvada families would have to pay much more to get the same funding benefit. You can see my own calculations of how much more we would have to pay for that (and other funding alternatives) in the “alternative funding for transportation” link referenced above.
So what about a combination of both property taxes and sales taxes instead of just one or the other? If I’ve got this right, the State Constitution requires ballot questions to be for a single issue only. If a combination of both property and sales taxes were proposed, one might pass and the other might not. That could leave us short of what is really needed.
SHOULD OTHER CITY SERVICES BE CUT INSTEAD?
It’s the next logical question. The City Council could cut other ongoing City functions to come up with another $9 million a year to provide the money City Staff is asking for.
That would amount to about 14% of the City’s annual budget. That’s a lot. The City already runs a tight budget. That approach would have a pretty significant impact on City services and maintenance. I once did a quick calculation and figured we could do it if we fired the entire police force.
But I was wrong, we’d only have to fire less than half the department according to Arvada City Manager, Mark Deven. And it probably wouldn’t even be legal to do that since the taxpayers have voted twice now that some of our sales taxes be dedicated for police department use only.
And as for diverting urban renewal tax breaks to roads, I am always mystified why people think that money could even be available. Not only would it be illegal under State law, but those projects generate their own revenue. Without their tax concessions, there would be no urban renewal projects built and no money at all to use for any other purpose. Urban renewal tax breaks are “but for” tax breaks. But for those limited tax concessions, there would be no urban renewal and no new revenue for anything.
A somewhat more practical suggestion would be to divert the entire City Charter-mandated capital improvement budget over the next ten years to roads. But even though that would be legal, it is still not enough, and it would kill a lot of things a recent citizens’ committee said were more important. That committee instead recommended finding a new revenue source (i.e., taxes or fees) to improve roads. City Manager Mark Deven addressed this issue much better than I could for three minutes at the last City Council workshop.
If anyone is interested, they can hear what he said if they pull up the City’s workshop video on this subject and go to the 1-hour 54-minute mark at this link:
WILL MY OWN ROAD GET FIXED?
Maybe not. If your street is already in pretty good shape, it’s not likely to get any improvements with a tax increase over the next ten years other than regular crack sealing or maybe a very thin (micropave) overlay. If, more likely, you are more concerned about the roads you commute on or use for shopping while travelling at higher speeds than you do on your own residential street, then the answer depends upon who owns the road. The City does not own, operate, or maintain all of Arvada’s arterial roads.
The State of Colorado does that for its State Highways. SH 72, for example, runs up Ward Road from I-70, west along 64th Avenue, then turns onto Indiana, and then again along Coal Creek Canyon Road. Similarly, Wadsworth Boulevard, Sheridan Boulevard and SH 93 are all owned and maintained by the State’s transportation department, CDOT. If you drive on those roads, keep in mind this is not likely to be where Arvada’s tax increase will be going.
The City did up a great condition survey map showing the measured road conditions on all the City-owned streets. As you might have guessed, most of the worst roads are in the older residential neighborhoods.
I’ve asked the City to add the condition survey map to Arvada.org’s excellent GIS map gallery on Arvada.org at
but so far they have not been able to do that.
However, there are very low-resolution maps that are available online. The best I’ve seen is a “Red to Green” map in the latest Arvada Report on page three. And, I’ll copy it here at the best resolution I can get. But you might not be able to find your own street on it. Why? Because it can be hard to get oriented. In addition to the somewhat fuzzy image, the State Highways have been blanked out entirely since they are not City streets. You might have to guess where they are to help find your own street. Arvada looks very different on a map without Wadsworth Boulevard on it. Here is the image:
IS NOVEMBER A GOOD TIME TO EVEN BE ASKING THE VOTERS ABOUT THIS ISSUE?
There is going to be an awful lot on this November’s ballot. And much of what will be on that ballot will be controversial. In addition to the Presidential race where both candidates have a high disapproval rating, there will be federal Senate and House races, tight races for Arvada’s State House and Senate representatives, a very large Jeffco schools tax issue, a SCFD cultural and arts district tax renewal, and many more issues for Arvada voters to consider.
But voter turnout tends to be higher during November Presidential election years and a large turnout tends to favor tax issues. The alternative for a May ballot question usually brings out older and more consistent voters who tend to vote against tax increases. And then there is the possibility of an off-year ballot question in November of 2017.
And there is a lot of information about the need for improved road maintenance and congestion mitigation in Arvada that voters will have to absorb between now and the end of October while they are considering all those other ballot issues. I don’t see that there is much time left to do a good job of that in this current election cycle, and people tend not to vote for issues they are uncertain about.
HOW WILL THIS WRITER VOTE?
I’m pretty likely to be voting for a tax increase for roads if one goes up on the ballot.
I am a little worried that we are relying a little too much on the findings of a single consultant to ask voters for $93 million of additional funding over the next decade. I may not be completely happy about this choice of funding, but I can afford a $65 a year increase in retail purchases in Arvada. It’s relatively cheap, and it’s an easy way to get the needed revenue.
And, considering the benefit that money will bring to me and to my neighborhood, I think it will probably be a pretty easy decision to make. Investing reasonable amounts in roads and transportation infrastructure is generally a good public investment at just about any time.
For a cost comparison, this proposal should cost me only a little more than the 0.40% RTD FasTracks tax when I voted for that years ago. By coincidence, $65 is the same amount that RTD said in public meetings that tax would cost a typical metro-area family each year. That Gold Line train hasn’t even arrived in Arvada yet, but already I see the benefits it has brought to the community – particularly in helping to revitalize Olde Town and to redevelop the Arvada Ridge area. Hopefully, these road improvements will do the same for all of Arvada.
This writer is a civil engineer. I once attended Michigan State University for a month of day-and-night intensive training in pavement design, and how to put together pavement management systems, how to evaluate pavements conditions, and how to best allocate resources for maintaining state highways. The State of Colorado footed the bill for that when I was an employee of CDOT. I have also spent many, many hours doing pavement condition surveys in the field on highways all over Colorado as a part of my work for that agency as a research engineer. I’m retired now, but that background has done much to reinforce my own belief that public expenditures in keeping up city streets with regular preventative maintenance are a good investment.
WHERE TO FIND OUT MORE
This is a YouTube video of the Arvada City Council’s workshop on this subject.
Unless you also want to learn about long-range planning for Arvada’s broadband internet service, the road maintenance part starts at about the 1-hour 46-minute part on the video.
The City also has a number of information files that go with the online survey. You can find those at this link on Arvada.org:
There are two earlier CLRC articles on this subject. Here are the links to each:
If you are interested in what the most recent citizens’ survey has to say about the need for better road maintenance, here is a link to yet another CLRC article on that subject:
If you are still undecided on whether or not to take the survey, here are the six questions you’ll be asked to answer, displayed here in a compressed format:
- Arvada’s transportation infrastructure is the City’s largest and most valuable asset and must be a priority in terms of maintenance and improvements.
Agree Disagree Other (please specify)
- Do you believe the condition of Arvada’s streets and roads has deteriorated over the past five years?
Yes No About the same Don’t know Other (please specify)
- Thinking about street and road maintenance, what are the top issues you think the City of Arvada should focus on when addressing transportation infrastructure needs?
Filling potholes and repairing cracks in streets.
Preventative maintenance that will extend street life and save money long term.
Widening major intersections.
Continue to improve synchronization of lights along busy streets.
Increasing the number of turn lanes to ease congestion.
Other (please specify)
- The Citizens Capital Improvement Plan Committee, a diverse group of Arvada residents appointed to assess the City’s infrastructure needs, ranked street improvements and maintenance as a top priority and recommended that Council take immediate action to address the shortfall in funding available for needed street improvements and maintenance. In response, City staff has recommended that Arvada City Council consider asking voters for a 1/2 cent sales tax increase to be used specifically for Arvada streets and roads. If the vote were held today would you support this increase?
Yes, I would support a1/2 sales tax increase specifically for Arvada streets and roads.
No, I would not support a sales tax increase.
I don’t know
Other (please specify)
- Would you be more or less willing to support a 1/2 cent tax increase to be specifically spent on roads if you knew all monies collected from this tax will be conducted in an open and transparent process including all projects tracked on the City’s website as well as an annual review published on the City’s website?
More likely Less likely Does not make a difference Other (please specify)
- Would you be more or less likely to support a 1/2 cent sales tax to be spent specifically on Arvada streets and roads if the tax had a sunset provision–meaning it would end after a certain amount of time?
More likely Less likely Does not make a difference Other (please specify)
Okay, now it’s your turn. Follow the link at the top of this article and take the City’s Better Roads survey and tell the Council what you think. They are waiting to hear from you.
August 7, 2016