A healthy majority of Denver voters elected last week to approve $937 million in bond sales to support infrastructure projects across the city, with nearly half of the investment dedicated to transportation and mobility. The vote capped off a process that began in the spring with a series of community meetings meant to solicit input on which projects to fund. The bond initiative — the first general obligation bond since the Better Denver bond sale that passed a decade ago — was announced by Mayor Michael Hancock last fall.
In the interim, Hancock says, no issue generated more discussion at community meetings than transportation — from traffic congestion to bicycle and pedestrian upgrades. Denver’s population has been growing by around 2 percent a year, and added nearly 100,000 residents since the 2010 Census. That growth has made a big infrastructure investment both possible — rising property valuations give the city some additional resources without raising the property-tax rate — and necessary.
“As cities are looking at their future, as Denver has routinely done, we’re recognizing that we have a transportation system that is very automobile-centric,” Hancock says, adding that many of the millennials and baby boomers who have accounted for much of the city’s growth have been demanding better options for transportation and mobility. “The growth has kind of exposed for us the lack of infrastructure investment,” Hancock says.
The ballot initiative was broken out into eight questions, representing investments in libraries, parks, recreation centers, cultural facilities, and public safety improvements, among other things — 460 projects in all. They include $37.5 million for a new rec center in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, $38 million for renovations at the Central Library, $20 million for improvements to the Denver Zoo, and $75 million for the Denver Health and Hospital Authority to establish an ambulatory care center.
At $431 million, the Transportation and Mobility category of investments was the largest by far. It also earned the most support at the polls, with more than 75 percent of voters pulling the lever in its favor. While a substantial portion is earmarked for deferred maintenance and road re-pavings, it will also fund the construction of 33 miles of new sidewalks and a handful of new bike and pedestrian bridges. The city’s network of protected bike lanes will grow as well, with $18 million dedicated to citywide bike infrastructure.
“This is going to really bring alive the protected bike-lane network downtown,” says Piep van Heuven, the Denver director for Bicycle Colorado. “And that is really going to be noticeable and change the culture on the street, which is really exciting.”
Van Heuven served on the Transportation and Mobility Committee for the bond process, and says that while the city ended up choosing some of the best projects to fund, there were many more that were worthy of support as well. After the executive committee received all the recommendations, it went through and cut 30 percent from everything.
“It was what I would call an equitable bloodletting,” van Heuven says.
And even with the dedicated investment from the bond issue, it will still take decades to establish the Denver Moves bike network at current levels of funding, van Heuven says. Mayor Hancock says the city needs to spend $2 billion on transportation infrastructure alone over the next 12 years, and he plans to dedicate more money from the general fund to transit and mobility projects as well.
Bicycle infrastructure projects enjoy wide public support in Denver. In a poll it conducted last fall, Bicycle Colorado found that more than 60 percent of respondents favored the city spending more on bike lanes, even if that meant reducing lanes dedicated to car traffic or parking. About as many respondents said they would ride a bike rather than drive if there were more bike lanes, according to a Bicycle Colorado press release. Another poll conducted earlier this year found that 66 percent of respondents would support paying an increased sales tax to get the bike network built, according to Streetsblog Denver. But even in a relatively bike-friendly city like Denver, van Heuven says bike-lane proposals can be controversial, and the process of getting them approved is slow. She says she’d like to see a greater commitment from the mayor to expediting that process.
Denver isn’t the only city looking to make investments in transportation infrastructure. Last fall, Los Angeles voters approved a half-cent sales-tax increase to fund a new rail network and establish more bike infrastructure. Seattle voters backed a $54 billion investment in regional light rail. The Renew Atlanta infrastructure program was kickstarted by a voter-approved bond in 2015.
Hancock says he wasn’t surprised that the transportation and mobility question got the biggest share of votes among the bond questions. But the need for infrastructure spending still outstrips the city’s capacity.
“There’s still placeholders in this funding stream for the state and federal governments,” Hancock says. “Traditionally, there’s been a partnership on these issues, and just because they’re in flux doesn’t mean we let them off the hook. … The federal government has a tremendous role to play here and we certainly hope they get their act together so they can join cities like Denver who have made a commitment.”
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.