by Pam Zubeck
Trails lost out today when the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners voted against including a line-item for trails projects in an upcoming ballot measure.
Or as trails supporter Lee Milner said, "No crumbs."
The Pikes Peak Transportation Authority 1 percent sales tax expires at the end of 2014, so local elected officials are preparing for a ballot measure this year. (If it fails this year, they'd still have another year to take a second run at voters.)
The tax generates about $70 million a year for roads and bridges in the county, Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Green Mountain Falls and a couple of other small towns.
Today, commissioners were presented with several options to include trails in the new RTA 2 proposal to be decided by voters Nov. 6.
The one drawing the most discussion was a measure that would include $106,000 for trails, which would help fund 20 percent of any project's cost, requiring the other 80 percent come from "partners" such as Great Outdoors Colorado, grants and private contributions.
A couple members of the county's Highway Advisory Committee said accommodation for bicycles shouldn't be included in the transportation system funding package because trails are used for recreation at least 90 percent of the time. In other words, trails aren't used by commuters.
Bill Koerner of the Trails and Open Space Coalition disagreed, saying many people pedal to and from work. Problem is, many trails are interrupted.
"The key thing is connectivity," he said, adding that roads "need to connect with city trails and other county trails. We feel the RTA can play a role in making these connections."
Dan Stuart, chairman of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC's committee that will advocate for the extending the tax, also spoke in favor of the $106,000 option.
"We know trails are not just for commuting," Stuart said. "Trails are for quality of life and they also improve economic vitality. The county’s list of trails when combined with the city’s list provide faster and safer ways to get around the region."
Commissioners Sallie Clark, Dennis Hisey and Amy Lathen balked at the $106,000 proposal, saying it would be too complicated to include a line-item with only 20 percent funding, which would remove RTA's control over whether the project gets funded. If no donations came in, they argued, projects couldn't be funded, undermining the RTA slogan of "promises made, promises kept."
"How does that play, when we have to say, '[Promises were kept], except where we didn’t have the right partnership'?" Hisey said.
Said Clark, "A lot of intersection improvements could be done with $106,000. I’m just real concerned about eroding what most folks think of as transportation." She added that trails aren't as important as vehicular roads in the mission of moving people from point A to point B.
Commissioners eventually voted unanimously to accept another option, which includes $85,000 for the B Street trailhead and trail that will connect with a city trail and the newly constructed pedestrian overpass on B Street.
Clark, Hisey and Lathen stressed that their opposition to the $106,000 option wasn't because they oppose trails. (Commissioners Darryl Glenn and Peggy Littleton favored the $106,000 option.)
"It's not about whether we like trails," Lathen said. "It's about what this model looks like going forward." She was referring to the definition of transportation contained in the first RTA ballot measure, which restricts spending to vehicular traffic and transit.
To that, Milner, who had earlier pleaded with commissioners to include the $106,000 in the RTA package as "a crumb" for the hiking and biking community, said, "You put money behind things you support."
Milner also noted that the RTA tax extension, given the economic times, might face a tough road with voters who are strapped and don't want to extend the sales tax. Including trails projects, he said, could have helped generate enthusiasm from trails supporters.
The county's package does include accommodations for bicycles of twice that amount, from $8 million to $10 million of the county's total of $160 million for its project lists. County engineer Andre Brackin said several road improvement and widening projects will include wider shoulders; some will be built with parallel bicycle trails. Brackin couldn't explain why commissioners were so dead-set against funding trails separately but voted to approve spending millions on trails when they coincide with motorized vehicle roads.
As a footnote.....
The RTA board, comprised of representatives from entities who get a stake from the tax, are haggling over ballot wording, Lathen said during today's commission meeting.
Some board members don't want the measure to conform to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which requires tax measures begin by stating, "Shall taxes be increased by (insert amount here)...."
Because the RTA tax is an extension of an existing tax, the reasoning goes, the measure could begin by asking, "Shall the RTA tax be renewed" or "extended" or some other kind of term that might not be so off-putting to taxpayers. After all, this camp argues, the city's measure that extended the trails, open space and parks (TOPS) tax some years ago used language that deviated from the TABOR requirement. Here's the ballot wording for that measure:
But Lathen said that's because the TOPS tax extension was used to tackle the same list of projects that the original TOPS tax was designed to tackle. RTA 2 will tackle a whole new set of projects not listed in the RTA 1 ballot measure, she said.
"Therefore," Lathen said, capping this argument, "It’s a new tax and must comply" with TABOR.
In coming weeks, the RTA board will finalize the ballot language and the list of projects from all participating governments.