A new year; a new Colorado legislative session. Voters have chosen to reduce state revenue through reductions in income taxes, so the Centennial State’s budget will feel a pinch in coming years.
Can the state find a way to maintain our roads, ditches and pipes without diverting dollars away from other needs?
Yes, in my view. It will require a two-pronged approach: A commitment from the state to making cost-effective decisions about our infrastructure, and expanding individual freedom for landowners to adapt their land as they would like.
Individual liberty in land use and cost-effective infrastructure interact in a virtuous circle. The freedom to adapt the land we own in response to changing needs and prices can drive down per-capita infrastructure spending.
And if we can change our cities and infrastructure more quickly, we face less frustration with construction, congestion and infrastructure failures.
We need look no further than Interstate 70 in the mountains. By the time the Colorado Department of Transportation completes its express lanes in both directions, first eastbound and then westbound, it will have spent as much as $140 million to expand peak-hour vehicle capacity by about 600 to 900 cars per hour on a 13-mile stretch of I-70, simultaneously disrupting daily life of Idaho Springs through the ongoing noise and vibration of heavy construction.
For the same capital expenditure as this shoulder expansion, CDOT could add 200 Snowstang buses, replacing 2,000 to 3,000 cars per hour in each direction during rush hour. (Note: Rider fares and ski resorts paid for Snowstang’s operational costs, not taxpayer money.)
Our roads, sidewalks, rails and airports exist to enable the movement of people and goods, and we collectively share the goal of moving people at low cost and high speed. No one transportation mode is always the cost-effective choice or convenient choice. For getting around a region or the state, few will choose a bus or train if it’s too hard to connect with it. And that brings us to the second of the two prongs I mentioned earlier.
Conceptually, zoning separates where people live from noxious uses, and limits what is built in an area for a time (so that new development doesn’t outpace a city’s ability to provide infrastructure like water supply and streets). But my experience on a local zoning committee indicates that zoning and rezoning are an exercise in Kafkaesque, top-down micromanagement.
Zoning codes often prescribe exactly what a city should look like in great detail through an expensive, time-consuming process. It doesn’t have to be this way. Zoning could merely establish the broad contours of how a neighborhood might evolve that respects current residents and the reality of the region around a neighborhood.
With enhanced freedom to build more housing on a given plot of land — especially on well-served transit corridors — more individuals could create an environment where non-car options become viable for more people. That would free up more room on the road for those who choose to drive. We all would benefit from others’ freedom, even if we don’t choose non-car options ourselves.
Without the individual liberty to add a second story with more bedrooms for more kids, or to turn a large single-family home into a multi-unit condo/apartment building, the architecture and physical composition of the city becomes divorced from what people need. Overly restrictive zoning also ignores the message that rising housing prices send: “Build more housing here.”
Colorado is a local-control state. But local control still means control, and so your freedom depends on which city you live in.
The Colorado constitution gives the state legislature a small but functional toolbox on zoning matters. Through the power of the budget, the state can encourage agencies like CDOT to make funding decisions and allocations that honestly reflect the cost of services. Cost transparency would incentivize cities to critically evaluate their zoning laws and infrastructure decisions.
Only the government can change the infrastructure, and only the government can relax constrictions of liberty experienced through restrictive zoning. We all deserve infrastructure that works well, for as many people and uses as possible, at a level commensurate with the ability of our taxes to pay for it. We should all be free to choose getting around via car, bus, bike, or foot, and those should all be safe choices.
We must also recognize that the infrastructure choices that achieve our broad goals in the most cost-effective way will change as a region evolves. People make choices based on the infrastructure and policies that are available to them.
Highway expansion, bus purchases, zoning enforcement, sewer maintenance, snow removal, and many other municipal functions all require public money. The freedoms we allow or deny individuals heavily influences how much taxpayer money we must spend to keep our state functioning.
Advancing the liberty and fiscal responsibility that characterize bipartisan, colorful Colorado would make our state work better for all of us.
Chris Miller of Denver is a data scientist focusing on infrastructure; a housing/mobility/liberty advocate; and a mediocre but passionate hiker, biker, climber and skier.
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