Supporting Solutions for the Future or Fixing the Mistakes of the Past?

The upcoming general obligation bond proposal is a tremendous opportunity for Denver. It will ask an important question beyond simply, “Do we want shiny new stuff?” It will also ask the voters, “How are we going to pay for our city?” Namely, will we make strategic investments to increase efficiency and capacity or will we use our once-a-decade bond issue to catch up on deferred maintenance?

There are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. Catching up on deferred maintenance is definitely important. Rough streets are hard on cars and make driving more expensive and less convenient. Buildings needing basic repairs deteriorate more quickly than ones in good repair. City parks with broken sprinklers, dying trees, or broken playground equipment make it difficult to enjoy our community green space. But while these things should be brought to a state of good repair, I argue that spending bond money doing so would be an example of waste: not just a waste of opportunity but also a waste of money.

While spending money on maintenance is important, spending bond money on maintenance means we’re paying interest on every dollar we spend. Bond interest, though low, is still interest, and a dollar borrowed today will cost us two dollars by the time it’s paid off in 2028. So if we pay for maintenance out of our yearly budget instead of using bond money, we could fund just as much maintenance for half the amount of money. Paying for overdue maintenance out of bond funds shows bad governance: a government and citizenry that won’t commit to funding routine maintenance—when needed—out of the annual budget. Good urbanists should reject this kind of fecklessness.

As good urbanists, we shouldn’t just repair what has already been built in the current form, we should rebuild it to be more useful, to allow more people to live more comfortably in our city. If we want our transportation infrastructure to be used more efficiently, that is, if we want it to produce more wealth and a healthier city in all senses of the word, then we need to invest in projects which upgrade that infrastructure, not ones that maintain the status quo. Simply repaving or rebuilding will only get us back to square one. We need to get ahead of square one, by investing our bond funds in projects which will move more people in more sustainable ways to where they need to go. Catching up on maintenance can, by definition, only move the same amount of people at the same speed and, remember, at twice the price.

We want Denver to continue to thrive, and so we should be investing for the future, not just catching up with the mistakes of the past. We should be spending money in a way that will make a difference in the way our city runs, indeed in our neighbors’ lives. And so we need your help. Yes, you! Call your councilperson. Write them an email. Talk to them in person and tell them that, while maintenance is important, we must do better than tread water: we must move Denver towards a better future. And while you’re at it, tell them to start fully funding maintenance every year, through the regular budget process, so that the next time a bond issue rolls around we can dream even bigger and truly be proud of our beautiful and bustling city.

By | 2017-06-09T15:19:51+00:00 June 9, 2017|Categories: A Feature Post, Infrastructure, Sustainability, Transportation|11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Jason June 9, 2017 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    So what is the interest rate proposed?

    And how do you propose we find funding for maintenance?

    • Ken Schroeppel June 9, 2017 at 6:53 pm - Reply

      If the city doesn’t have enough general fund money to keep up with routine maintenance, then they should put a mill levy increase before the voters.

      • TakeFive June 12, 2017 at 7:14 pm - Reply

        I would agree. IIRC they did that in the Better Denver, Bond package. Don’t recall the millage other than I had estimated it would start out at about an extra $25/26 million per year. It obviously wasn’t enough. I’d assume the combo of intense growth and inflation costs for road maintenance etc is the culprit.

  2. Kevin June 10, 2017 at 1:30 am - Reply

    By “Mistakes of the past”, you would be referring to passing bond issues and building expensive infrastructure without any plan to maintain it, correct?

    Perhaps the best outcome is rejecting the bond altogether to prevent either scenario from happening.

    • Ken Schroeppel June 10, 2017 at 6:22 pm - Reply

      Kevin, I think John meant not funding maintenance as it was needed causing there to be a long list of deferred maintenance projects as the mistake from the past. That’s certainly the way I see it.

    • John R June 12, 2017 at 2:40 pm - Reply

      Hello Kevin, Ken is correct, I was referring to the mistake of chronically underfunding maintenance. You absolutely make a valid point though, asking whether we should be building new infrastructure when we can’t afford to maintain what we’ve already built. I tried to resolve that by focusing on rebuilding what we’ve already got to be used more efficiently, but not building anything and using the saved funds to increase our maintenance budget is also totally legitimate, if politically untenable.

  3. Michael Ziarnek June 10, 2017 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    John and Ken, Much thanks to both of you; you continually educate me. Regards, Mike Z.

  4. […] DenverUrbanism Breaks Down Why Paying Interest on Maintenance Is […]

  5. TakeFive June 12, 2017 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    John, Very nicely stated; I would agree wholeheartedly with most of it.

    My guess though is that the numbers won’t add up. Using Ken’s very good point they prolly should have used a portion of the mill levy capacity to ask for an annual increase in maintenance. I’ll guess that they need about another $40 million annually from the looks of things..

    “then we need to invest in projects which upgrade that infrastructure… by investing our bond funds in projects which will move more people in more sustainable ways”

    Excellent thinking and I do look forward to Denveright/Denver Moves recommendations. I’m guessing you will need about $2.5 billion to accomplish much and do it right.

  6. […] John Riecke argues that bond money shouldn’t go to maintenance, but instead should be spent to reconfigure the city for the better. (Urbanism) […]

  7. […] As John Riecke lays out in a recent post on DenverUrbanism: […]

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