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We knew it was happening.
You could tell every day of the week regardless of where you reside along the Front Range of Colorado. All you had to do was to be driving from point A to point B.
Vehicular traffic has increased substantially, whether you are driving on I-25, U.S. 36, I-225, C-470 or along the arterial streets like Sheridan Boulevard, Wadsworth Boulevard, Arapahoe Road or Federal Boulevard.
Rush hour has gotten longer on both ends — start and finish.
What confirmed for us that more people are now living and working along the Front Range? A late December newspaper article reporting the findings of the U.S. Census Bureau was the clincher: Colorado’s population grew by more than 77,000 in a 12-month period. Yes, from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, the state’s population grew by 1.4 percent. When you add growth from the prior 12-month period - which was 98,000 additional folks —there are now 175,000 additional Coloradoans who are driving, working, shopping and recreating among us than there were in 2015.
Since 2010, Colorado’s population has grown by leaps and bounds, to the tune of 577,829 additional residents. That’s an 11.6 percent increase.
Our state ranks 6th highest in population growth for this period of time and for at least the short range, it is clear that Colorado’s population will continue to increase.
Given the number of apartments, townhomes and single-family dwellings either under construction or on the planning boards along with Colorado’s strong economy and job opportunities, we can easily expect steady net growth.
800-pound gorilla staring at the Front Range
So, how does this play out for us? Besides the traffic continuing to get worse before it would even hope to get better, there is an 800-pound gorilla staring at the Front Range.
It’s quite simple — water. Where will the additional water resources come from in our semi-arid climate to quench the thirst of all of these additional residents, businesses and tourists? Each town or city or water district should already be on their toes to confirm and reconfirm that their decreed water sources are sufficient to absorb the additional water demand. Furthermore, are the assumptions made with or without a drought?
There are other considerations with such rapid growth.
For example, can state, county, school district, special districts and municipal governments keep up financially with the demands caused by growth?
While more residential units get built, it does not mean that local governments are reaping financial gains. While additional students equate to more state funding per student, there are significant expenses in teacher salaries and benefits, transportation and likely more crowded class rooms. County governments, special districts and school districts rely heavily on property tax revenues to fund their operations.
However, due to the Gallagher Constitutional Amendment, property tax revenues on new residential development is anemic and expands the unfair burden placed on business and commercial properties. Sales tax is the staple tax revenue for municipalities throughout Colorado. When residents are purchasing lots of commodities, tax returns are good. For those cities which did not exempt groceries from their sales tax rate, a steadier revenue stream exists.
Capital improvements need attention
With the growth, there is extra pressure and need to build capital improvements.
Besides the major need to expand road and highway capacity which we are way behind on achieving already - RTD needs to finish its FasTracks Plan voters approved back 2004 to provide more commuter rail opportunities.
School districts either now or later will be faced with the need for more class rooms and ancillary facilities. County jails, fire stations, recreation centers, parks, police sub stations and other government facilities need to be included in the planning to cope with the growth.
These are major capital investments and usually require voter approval for either a bond issue, a tax increase or both. Also, water and wastewater treatment facilities are impacted by sustained growth. While not tax supported, these utility services will need expanded capacity built at some point which means increased cost to the utility funds although water and sewer tap fees for new construction pay a good part of this cost.
Pacing growth within resource capabilities
While most of us, including my wife and I, are Colorado transplants, we can’t build a wall around the state. Some growth is needed to maintain a viable economy as well as sustaining our state’s quality of life.
However, the pace or volume of growth is the culprit in this picture. Growth management can be a viable tool if used in moderation. Pacing the amount of growth each year is far better than simply having an “open door” to Colorado communities. Such pacing should be tied to water resources and treatment plant capacity. So, with that said, it would be far better to have Amazon locate their second headquarters in a state where growth is not already so dominant.
Finally, Denver Mayor Hancock and his study group which are looking at the feasibility of hosting a future winter Olympics should save their time and effort by deciding that it would not be in Colorado’s best interests.
Perhaps this possibility should be put to a vote of all Coloradoans.
Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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