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.