Avon Town Council members spar over budget for underpass upgrade
Debate hinges over whether project budgets surpassing $1M should go to a public vote
Tensions mounted between Avon Town Council members on Tuesday over the budget and construction of a new pedestrian and bicycle walkway along one side of Avon Road at the Interstate 70 underpass. The heated debate sparked questions about how the council should spend its money and whether project budgets in the seven figures should go to a public vote.
The Avon Road project, referred to as the Underpass Project, seeks to increase safety along this stretch and improve the connectivity between the north and south sides of Avon.
The project would consist of moving the sidewalk behind the bridge columns and widening it, adding landscaping to the area, improving draining, utilizing snow melting heat elements and building shelters to prevent ice and snow build up along the sidewalk, improving lighting and making upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Constriction for the Project is subject to Colorado Department of Transportation approval, which typically takes three months. With current plans, the construction will begin in mid-August and be completed by Nov. 1.
The Underpass Project is included in the 2021 capital projects fund. This is primarily funded by a 2% real estate transfer tax and by additional contributions from the town’s general fund. This fund is administered by Justin Hildreth, the town engineer. According to the 2021 budget, the capital projects fund “represents the town’s commitment to a multi-year CIP [capital improvement program] and relates directly to other long-range plans and policies of the town.”
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The price tag
While council members agreed on the necessity and urgency of the project, the sparring began when the project’s price tag was presented.
According to Hildreth, CDOT has told the town it does not have funds for this type of project. There are $300,000-400,000 grants, which CDOT awards every three years. However, these are anything but a given.
While the 2021 capital projects fund includes $900,000 for the project, the council voted to award the project to Gould Construction for $943,214. This award also increased the budget to $1,051,835 to fund a project contingency, inspections and construction administration.
“I think it’s really fiscally irresponsible as a town to just bite off the whole chunk,” said council member Chico Thuon. “Why can’t we remedy the situation until we can get these funds from CDOT or get in line for the funds from CDOT? I think it’s so irresponsible that you would even propose the fact that you’re not going to try to get funding from CDOT. “
“CDOT does not care anything about pedestrians or bicycles, they have made that perfectly clear, they don’t fund those kinds of projects,” said Mayor Pro Tem Amy Phillips on the topic.
Another expressed concern was about the breadth of the project. This initial project will only fund improvements on the west side of Avon Road, with plans to construct the other side in the next few years. Hildreth said that he expects that the scope and cost of completing the other side will be the same. “We could add the second phase to the CIP several years out when we do have adequate revenue to cover the project,” he said.
All council members agreed that this should be considered a single project with two phases and that future CIP and town budgets should be amended to reflect this.
“It is a health and safety issue,” said Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes. “We just decided to spend $746,000 on special events this summer. The cost of things always bothers me, but the reality is when you need something and that’s what it costs, you have to pay it.”
Getting voter input
When considering the complete scope of the Underpass Project to improve both sides of Avon Road, the price tag reaches above $2 million, which made certain members leery of a council vote without taxpayers having a say.
“This is substantial money, we have to let our community make the decision on this,” said Council member Scott Prince, who made a motion to put the project to an informal public vote, similar to what was done with the Hahnewald Barn in 2019.
“Since the Wildridge bike project, we’ve had a couple of different flair-ups with the community — the barn and West Beaver Creek Boulevard,” Thuon said. “We have had a few hiccups in the last several years, so I think it’s only smart that we value the opinion of our constituents.”
However, not all council members thought that it was the job of voters to decide these matters.
“I understand that $2 million to do both sides is a lot, but I can think of at least 20 projects [near this amount] that we have done without sending it to a vote,” said Phillips. “I think that this is a disgusting way to do business. We are elected, including me, every four years to represent the people.”
Council member Tamra Underwood echoed this sentiment. “Of course we always wanted to elicit as much opinion as we can, but we were elected to make some of these hard decisions ourselves,” she said.
When put to a vote, the motion to put the project to an informal vote failed four to two, with Thuon and Prince dissenting.
The project’s value
Within the debates about the project’s price tag, multiple council members brought up the value the project would not only bring to Avon as a whole, but to specific communities in the town.
“If we kick the can down the road and say we’re going to do it in two or three years, if we get a grant, I think that’s saying to these residents that live along Nottingham Road that we don’t value them as much as we value the people who are living closer to the core,” said Council member Lindsay Hardy. “I think we need to elevate this portion of Avon like we continue to elevate the rest of Avon. I think it’s a valuable place to put our money.”
Specifically, the project would impact the north side of Avon, including the properties along Nottingham Road. These properties, according to Phillips, represent roughly $67 million worth of residential property.
“The residents, the taxpayers and the businesses on the north side of the highway deserve the respect and attention that this project will bring there,” Underwood said.
After all that was discussed, ultimately, the council did vote to put this project in motion.