May: It’s common sense to maintain streets
You wouldn’t buy a new $1,500 bike and leave it lying in your yard at the mercy of the elements. Nor would you expect to drive your car for 200,000 miles without maintaining and repairing it. This kind of behavior would be irresponsible, wasteful and — frankly —dumb.
Fort Collins residents have long applied that kind of common sense to their streets. Over 150 years, the community has grown and its street system has expanded accordingly. Now at 575 centerline miles of arterial, collector and residential streets, it’s by far the community’s largest public investment. To their credit, residents expect this investment to be properly maintained and have been willing to pay for it.
From years of experience, people around the country responsible for maintaining roads and streets learned that it was much more cost-effective to repair streets before they deteriorate too far. The city of Fort Collins Transportation Department developed a pavement condition index to guide their repair schedule. It determined that keeping streets at Level of Service B — in good condition — costs 6 to 8 times less than a complete rebuild.
To that end, the city spends approximately $15 million annually to repair nearly 70 centerline miles of streets. The money comes from several sources, with the two biggest being a quarter-cent street maintenance sales and use tax and revenue from the 2010 Keep Fort Collins Great sales and use tax. This willingness of voters to tax themselves to maintain streets goes back to the mid-1980s when they approved a quarter-cent tax under a capital program called Project RECAP.
The latest iteration was the Street Maintenance quarter-cent tax passed in 2006. It is due to expire on Dec. 31 unless renewed by voters.
The decision was made by the City Council last Tuesday to put renewal of the tax on the April ballot.
In the course of the conversation, there was an attempt to lower the voter-approved tax and replace it with a City Council-imposed transportation fee. From a government-centric perspective, having a fee sounds great because it means not having to ask voters to approve a tax.
Plus it’s more flexible. Where revenue from a voter-approved street maintenance tax would have to be used for repairing streets, a transportation fee could be used for all kinds of things based on the animating philosophy of a majority of council members. And based on the current nature of politics in Fort Collins, a council-adopted fee would likely be politicized to favor some groups while punishing others. Fortunately, a majority of the council did not go along with the voter bypass scheme.
Another reason a tax is better than a fee is because it’s also paid by visitors and tourists who use our streets. A fee, on the other hand, would shift the burden completely to Fort Collins homeowners and businesses.
Good for the council for letting voters decide and good for citizens for having the common sense to take care of their street system investment.
David May is president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Column originally published by The Fort Collins Coloradoan January 22, 2015