Most of us have found ourselves fuming behind the wheel, waiting for a traffic jam in front of us to clear out. For some, it’s only an occasional experience, but for others, it happens daily. The reason is clear to everyone — Columbia’s construction of major arterial streets has lagged behind the curve. Eventually our streets are brought up to reasonable standards as growth occurs, but it often seems to happen several years after the need arises.
On Tuesday, we have an opportunity to change all that. If the propositions on the ballot are adopted by the voters, we can get ahead of the curve and provide the new arterial streets we need in a timely manner, as well as correcting some serious problems with our existing streets. A “yes” vote makes a great deal of sense.
There are six propositions on the ballot. That may seem a bit daunting, but the first four merely renew existing sales taxes that will otherwise expire. In part, these renewals will be used to fund a variety of community needs: new fire trucks and fire stations, a police training facility, new warning sirens, new neighborhood parks and trails, and completion of the Activity and Recreation Center complex (including a new ice rink, basketball courts and an all-weather shelter for the farmers’ market).
Don’t underestimate the importance of the public-safety expenditures in this package. They are critically needed to keep our emergency services up to standard and to renew obsolete equipment. If we don’t spend this money, all of us will be at greater risk. But the biggest share of the revenue from these four sales-tax renewal propositions, $35 million over 10 years, will go toward streets and sidewalks.
Proposition 5 is the only proposition that implements a new tax — an increase of one-eighth of a cent in the city sales tax. That’s a very small increase; it will mean, on a $100 purchase, only an additional 13 cents in tax. But the revenue it will produce is quite significant: $25 million over 10 years, all devoted to streets and sidewalks.
Developers are also being asked to help with the cost of improving our streets. Proposition 6 will increase the city’s present development charge of 10 cents per square foot to 50 cents, although the increase won’t be fully phased in until the fifth year. The charge would be $1,000 on a 2,000-square-foot house and would apply to both residential and commercial construction. It seems fair for developers and their customers to help to pay for improving our street network.
Some opponents of the propositions want to raise money for streets by putting a much greater financial burden on developers. But doing so would have an adverse impact on the affordability of housing in our community as the larger fees were passed on in the form of higher housing prices. The fees these opponents envision would far exceed those imposed on developers in other Missouri cities and would probably generate enormous (and in my view, quite legitimate) political opposition from builders.
When all of the revenues for streets and sidewalks in the package are combined with existing city street funds, we will be spending a total of $105 million for major street and sidewalk purposes over the next 10 years. That represents nearly a doubling of the city’s current expenditures for streets, and it is almost exactly the amount that a citizens’ advisory committee recommended last spring as the minimum needed to bring our streets up to standard and accommodate expected growth. All of this money will be earmarked exclusively for major arterial streets and sidewalks, and none of it will be spent on internal streets within new subdivisions (which are already the responsibility of the developer) or other city activities.
The package of street improvements — part of a master plan developed by the city — will include correcting such trouble spots as Scott Boulevard, North Providence Road, Sinclair Road and Clark Lane. There’s also $4.5 million for sidewalk improvements to make walking safer for our children and people with disabilities. You can see maps and listings of the entire street and park packages at columbiaonthemove.org.
Those who worry that the $105 million mentioned above won’t be enough money should remember that the figure is merely the city’s share of the planned street and sidewalk projects. Many of the projects will also receive contributions from Boone County, the Missouri Department of Transportation and, in some cases, the federal government. It isn’t yet possible to make a dollar estimate of the added amount, since the contributions of other agencies to several of the projects are yet to be negotiated, but it will be very substantial. In this way, we can “leverage” our local tax monies and multiply their impact.
There’s a nice balance in the set of propositions the City Council put together. They allocate the burden of better streets among existing residents, new move-ins (who will doubtless pay part of the increased development charge indirectly) and nonresidents of Columbia (who, according to the city’s consultants, pay about 30 percent of the sales taxes the city collects).
Of course, it would be nice to have even more money to spend on roads and streets, but it makes no sense to wait. Delay will only mean that construction costs will rise while our arterial streets become increasingly congested. And there is no assurance that some hypothetical future package of revenue measures would be as acceptable to the voters as the present package.
It’s critically important to pass the entire package of propositions Tuesday. If we do so, we’ll be taking a major step toward maintaining the outstanding quality of life for which Columbia is justly known.
Whitman is co-chairman of Columbia on the Move, an organization created to encourage passage of Tuesday’s ballot propositions.