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Our View: What will it take to fund La Plata’s roads and bridges?

If cultural references give perspective to when La Plata County’s 8.5 mill levy was approved in 1991, the movies “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “City Slickers,” filmed outside Durango, were hot tickets.

Since then, in addition to the price of movie admission, everything else costs exponentially more. Including road maintenance and construction, and materials – concrete and asphalt.

So how can we expect our meager mill levy, the fourth lowest in the state, to continue to pay for roads and bridges?

Easy answer: It can’t. To think otherwise is living in the past.

The county has transferred $5 million from sales tax revenue to the Road and Bridge Fund every year for three years before it hit the general fund. Yes, we’ve had some flush years with a boon of post-pandemic visitors. But we can’t rely on this. It’s not enough, anyway.

State law prohibits the county from moving money directly from the general fund to the Road and Bridge fund.

A typical road maintenance formula is $1.5 million for every mile. The department is responsible for almost 700 miles of county roads and 46 bridges within 1,690 square miles of La Plata County.

What’s needed is closer to $8 million to $10 million per year for 20 years. The reality could become no new capital investments. Then minimal maintenance. Then no maintenance.

What’s it going to take to change hearts and minds about adequately funding our roads and bridges?

The math makes clear the department is desperately underfunded. The only foreseeable solution is raising taxes.

Property tax, mill levy or sales tax, with this last option likely the most palatable. Which should it be?

And if you like paying taxes, please, raise your hand. See? That’s nobody. Voters have made this clear at the ballot box multiple times.

There’s a disconnect, too, between government services and what they actually cost. Some people don’t even want their roads repaired with the hope that washboard streets will repel newcomers.

Yet, there are no viable choices – obvious or otherwise – in this time of La Plata County becoming increasingly urbanized, with all roads leading to schools, jobs, grocery stores, all the places we go, then back home. Many of our feeder roads see many more than 400 trips per day and they should be paved. But they’re not.

Well-traveled roads exist throughout the county but growth and traffic on the Florida Mesa is notable. Consider the average daily trips on County Road 228, off County Road 234 and northeast of Elmore’s Corner with 1,572; County Road 501 from Bayfield to Vallecito with 8,227; and County Road 309 south of the airport, wrapping around with 2,631.

The county has considered a road impact fee, but its contribution would be modest at about $650,000 a year. It’s also purchased a gravel pit, ramped up road maintenance schedule communications and hired more employees on crews that do commendable work on a tight budget. A pavement index study was done and road systems were studied.

Grant money has helped, as well as Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding. But again, not enough based on a funding structure from 1991.

Also, oil and gas hasn’t brought in the money like it used to, as it’s cheaper to drill elsewhere.

In 2019, the county’s long-term finance committee called the issue a “crisis,” despite infrastructure being a tremendous asset.

Voters won’t see a local tax increase on the November ballot – it’s already crowded. Property valuations are too zany and the cost of living is foremost on minds.

A 2024 goal and priority of La Plata County is to improve long-term sustainability for services, infrastructure and assets. It takes money to do this.

County administrators and commissioners will reach out this summer, engaging communities and breaking down the severity of road situations. Feedback and ideas will be welcomed.

Within a few years, the tax question to fund our roads and bridges may be irrelevant. Instead, it may only be one of safety.