Denver’s 2017 GO bond has been whittled down to $749 million in recommended projects

“Sucky” and “extreme pain” were how members of the executive committee described the choices they made to get to a number that fits within Denver’s debt capacity.
8 min. read
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A pedestrian and bike bridge over the train tracks at East 47th Avenue and York Street in Elyria-Swansea made the cut. A fix for "Alameda Falls," the flood-prone underpass just east of Santa Fe Drive, did not. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

More than 3,000 project proposals worth some $4 billion have been winnowed down to fewer than 50 projects worth roughly $749 million.

"Sucky" and "extreme pain" were some of the terms members of the executive committee used in describing the choices they made to get down to a number that fits within the city's debt capacity -- which is between $800 and $900 million without increasing taxes -- while still leaving room for potential cost overruns and for elected officials to add in up to $50 million of their personal favorite projects.

As Mayor Michael Hancock had requested, transportation projects account for half the bond program, with deferred maintenance on Denver's pock-marked roads and crumbling bridges making up more than 10 percent of the total package. Fewer than one in 10 parks proposals made the final cut. Westwood, though, will get $37 million for a rec center, one of the top priorities identified in a recently adopted neighborhood plan.

Projects that were not recommended for funding are far too numerous to list, but they include improvements to the Alameda Avenue underpass ("Alameda Falls" when it rains hard), improvements to homeless shelters and facilities around the city, several new library requests and the River North Promenade, a top priority for RiNo boosters.

This process isn't over yet. The executive committee needs to double-check its math and do some other clean-up work before sending its recommendations to Hancock later this month. If, for example, a reduction in funding to a particular project means it won't happen at all,  even with private fundraising and grants, some of that money might be restored, and something else might have to get cut. Then the mayor's office will review the recommendations before sending the package to City Council. City Council has to approve the final form of the bond program before it goes to voters this November. (So all of these numbers could move a little, a caveat that applies to everything in this article.)

Here's what you need to to know about what made the cut and why:

Transportation projects are a top priority for city leadership.

Hancock has publicly stated his desire to see half of the bond program go toward transportation and mobility projects. This includes everything from completing sidewalk networks near transit stops to filling potholes, from revamping Colfax Avenue to support bus-rapid transit to reconstructing the 8th Avenue bridge.

The mayor's stance spared transportation and mobility projects in the final round of cuts. Some members of the executive committee proposed cutting Colfax BRT, transit improvements on Federal and other major transportation projects to get through the final $50 million in cuts on Friday. It seems less likely now than it did six months ago that there will be significant state or federal money available to leverage local dollars for transit projects. But that would have left transportation at less than half of the total bond program.

Transportation project recommendations include:

  • $100 million to address deferred maintenance on city roads and bridges (down from an estimated $177 million need)
  • $55 million for Colfax bus-rapid transit (total estimated project cost: $110 million)
  • $9.4 million for a bike and pedestrian bridge over train tracks at 47th and York (this is a huge safety issue for children walking to school in Elyria-Swansea; total estimated project cost: $11.2 million)
  • $8.6 million for 8th Avenue bridge reconstruction
  • $12 million for extension of protected bike lanes on South Broadway ($22 million would have covered I-25 to Colfax, while the reduced amount will cover a smaller section)
  • $18 million for citywide bike infrastructure, like protected bike lanes (reduced from a $30 million request)
  • $13.3 million for bike and pedestrian bridges to the Jewell/Evans RTD station
  • $23 million to reconstruct Washington Street from 47th to 52nd avenues (this is part of the neighborhood improvements around the National Western Center)
  • $13 million for implementation of the 16th Street Mall Plan (total project estimate: $26 million)
  • $29.7 million for sidewalk construction (reduced from a $41.9 million request)
Deferred maintenance needs hung over this process.

Repairs to city-owned buildings, parks, roads and other facilities added up to about $789 million, as the Denver Post's Jon Murray reported last month. They could have taken up the entire bond program on their own. But there are philosophical and political reasons not to do that. It's harder to convince voters to take on a major debt package for something many people think the city should be handling better in its regular budget. Doing only deferred maintenance means you pass up an opportunity to correct historic inequities in how facilities and infrastructure are distributed around the city. A bond program is a once-every-10-years opportunity to build major new projects.

On the transportation front, Council President Albus Brooks, who sat on the executive committee, said he would push for more money for deferred road maintenance as part of the regular budget process. As an elected official, that's a trade-off he's in a position to make. Nonetheless, more than a quarter of all the transportation money and more than 10 percent of the entire bond is currently recommended for deferred maintenance for roads and bridges.

There was a lot of lobbying involved.

During committee meetings, the chair would plead with the audience to let members go to the bathroom during breaks rather than cornering them with the best case for their projects. These lobbying efforts likely will continue to some extent until the City Council finalizes the bond program.

Denver Health.. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Denver Health is recommended to get $75 million for a new ambulatory care center.

This is a huge chunk of the bond program, larger than any other single project except deferred road maintenance. Denver Health is a public hospital and an extension of the city and county that provides health care to the city's poorest residents and doesn't get reimbursed at rates that cover its costs. There was a lot of discussion at the committee level about whether to fund this at a lower level to free up more money for other projects. Hospital officials held their ground successfully and argued that the ambulatory care center was so essential to improving the quality of care that they would cannibalize other programs to fund it if the city didn't provide the full $75 million they asked for. It's about half of the total project cost, and the hospital is doing private fundraising. However, the hospital has been told it can't take on new debt because it provides so much uncompensated care.

The Denver Art Museum’s iconic 1971 North Building, designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler Architects of Denver. (Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum)
Major community institutions like the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Zoo, the Botanic Gardens and the Museum of Nature and Science are all recommended for funding.

Not necessarily at the levels they sought, though.

There are a few reasons for this. For one, man does not live by bread alone. Having world-class cultural facilities is considered important to the intellectual and economic health of the city. For two, as committee members reminded each other repeatedly, "they can help us carry the bond." If the Denver Art Museum is out there putting its reputation and its marketing capacity behind the bond, it can only help it pass.

Denver Art Museum is recommended to get $35 million toward the renovation of the North building, the Botanic Gardens $16 million, the Denver Zoo $17.5 million.

To prevent deeper cuts to funding for other institutions, Denver Arts and Venues took a bit of a hit and will do only essential work at Red Rocks and the Buell Theatre for less than half an original request of $14 million.

Denver Central Library has been recommended to get $31 million toward a major renovation with a lot of safety goals. The downtown library serves as a de facto day shelter for homeless people and has experienced problems with drug dealing and other crime. The library had asked for $50 million out of a total master plan cost of $100 million. Improvements to the children's section will be prioritized out of the reduced funding. The library, like other institutions, is also doing fundraising for the master plan implementation.

Next steps:

Executive committee chair Roxane White concluded an exhausting process by saying, "Let's make certain we get this passed." And Brooks concluded by saying, "This process is not over."

After Hancock makes his own adjustments to the bond package, it will go to City Council. The executive committee set their target with the idea that City Council would add in as much as $50 million in additional spending.

The City Council must finalize the package by late August in order for it to appear on the ballot this November.

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