Littleton is poised to kick off a robust season of roadway improvements thanks to a budget boost from a ballot measure last fall that allowed the city to keep extra revenue, although road maintenance …
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Littleton is poised to kick off a robust season of roadway improvements thanks to a budget boost from a ballot measure last fall that allowed the city to keep extra revenue, although road maintenance remains far short of the ideal and budget woes loom on the horizon.
The city's road repair budget this year is nearly $4.8 million, high above the average of $1.4 million, according to city engineer Brent Thompson, who presented the 2018 road repair plan at the March 6 city council meeting.
Voters approved a measure last fall allowing the city to keep $1.9 million in excess revenue otherwise due to be refunded to taxpayers under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR. A little more than a quarter of the money, $550,000, is earmarked for a revamping of the intersection of Federal Boulevard and Bowles Avenue, with the rest of the windfall slated for various road upgrades.
The city also carried over $400,000 from last year's road repair budget, which Thompson attributed to high staff turnover in 2017 slowing or stalling progress on projects. Some of the carryover cash will be put into pedestrian crossing improvements, including flashing beacons at six locations, Thompson said.
Some of the carryover funds will also be allocated for a structural analysis of traffic-light poles, Thompson said.
“The importance of this structural analysis became painfully evident two weeks ago,” Thompson said. “We had a mast arm on a signal on County Line Road that the weld failed at the connection between the post and the mast arm. We were able to close the street quickly and there were no injuries. We installed a temporary signal the same day, and we've ordered a new pole, but that will be a six-month lead time.”
Meanwhile, Littleton's pavement is aging, and the longer it goes without regular maintenance, the more expensive it becomes to repair, said City Manager Mark Relph.
Relph said the $4.8 million road budget this year is a happy anomaly, and that future years will likely drop back closer to the $1.4 million norm. A 2014 study suggested that Littleton should be spending $3 million to $4 million every year for 10 years to bring the roads up to par, but that possibility seems unlikely.
Road repairs come out of the city's capital projects fund, which is drawn from construction use taxes and gasoline taxes. Increased fuel efficiency of vehicles has caused gas tax revenue collection to slow, and construction use taxes vary widely from year to year. Previous years have seen city council beef up the capital projects fund by transferring surplus cash from the city's general fund, but those surpluses are starting to dwindle as city costs increase.
“Unless we solve the capital projects funding problem, we will have a very serious problem and will not be able to meet the life cycle standards to manage our pavement,” Relph said. “2018 is an exception because of TABOR. Once that goes away in 2019, Public Works will be looking at a very minimum investment, and we will not be able to meet the standard for the typical pavement management practice and we will fall behind.”
The life cycle of pavement is about 50 years, Relph said, but that's with routine maintenance — and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure..
“We'll get to a condition where (road) reconstruction will be on our doorstep and we will not be able to afford that in the long run. In many parts of the city we haven't touched the road surface in decades, so we're already behind,” Relph said.
The city conducted a survey of its pavement condition in 2014, and found it to be in the 35th percentile of quality statewide.
“We have a substantial backlog of streets rated fair to poor,” Thompson said. “Our goal is to do the worst first. We have to prioritize with the funds we have allocated.”
Other contingencies could arise, Relph said, such as the possible elimination of Community Development Block Grants the city uses to improve sidewalks in lower-income parts of town.
“Every year we hear that block grants are likely to be cut,” Relph said. “I'm not surprised the Trump administration is looking at that. If they are, so be it … If we lose those, it puts more burden back on the local government.”
Beyond road maintenance, investments will be required to combat traffic congestion, Thompson said. An “intelligent transportation system,” that is, a high-tech traffic control system, would go a long way, he said.
“We cannot totally build our way out of congestion,” Thompson said. “It'll take intelligent signals, a fiber network to allow real time traffic response, and coordination and interconnectivity with regional systems to manage our congestion. It would provide the ability to make signal adjustments from the office — a real-time response to congestion.”
Communicating the city's road upgrade challenges and schedule to the public is important, said councilmember Karina Elrod.
“The city's (roads are) not going to get fixed in a few years,” Elrod said. “We hear citizens ask, 'Well, why wasn't it done in my neighborhood?' or, 'Those streets look worse, why not go over there?' That's some of the conversation. It's important to convey as we embark on this approach that it will take five, 10, 15, 20 years, or that it's continuously ongoing.”
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