Vail Daily editorial: Misplaced priorities |

Vail Daily editorial: Misplaced priorities

the Vail Daily Editorial Board

They’re spending how much?

That’s about the first thought upon learning that the Colorado Department of Transportation plans to spend up to $150 million on new offices in Denver, Greeley and Pueblo. According to Tuesday’s story in the online edition of The Denver Post, a number of state legislators aren’t happy to learn of the plan. Those legislators aren’t alone — that seems like an awful lot of money to spend on three office buildings.

Let’s for a moment accept the department’s argument that the current offices are hopelessly outdated and that it would cost more to renovate the old buildings than build new structures. Let’s also accept that building in Denver is expensive. The department is still talking about spending the kind of money for facilities that gets the public talking about Taj Mahal structures.

To put the $150 million number in perspective, the Eagle County Schools in 2006 passed a $128 million bond issue that built a brand-new Battle Mountain High School and related facilities, paid for broad technological upgrades throughout the district, paid for extensive upgrades to Eagle Valley High School and paid about 30 percent of the cost of getting Homestake Peak School ready at the old Battle Mountain site.

Granted, that was nearly a decade ago, and construction costs have jumped since then. But the state and nation have also ridden out the worst economic downturn since the 1930s in those years.

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For a bit more perspective, that $150 million would also pay five times over the entire cost of Vail’s new Interstate 70 underpass.

It’s a lot of money.

Worse, this seemingly extravagant spending comes from a state department that faces very real fiscal challenges. Colorado’s gas tax hasn’t been increased in decades, and even with more cars in the state than there were 20 years ago, those cars are more fuel-efficient. Federal cash is often hard to come by — for many of the same reasons — and the state’s general fund always seems a few billion short of what government officials say they need.

Department officials often — OK, virtually always — cite financial constraints when faced with just about any new project. Tight budgets are supposedly the reason that the department has put tolls on its new, 13-mile I-70 shoulder lane through Clear Creek County. If department officials think they’re catching heat now from people about those tolls — which will range from about $5 to $30, depending on demand — wait until voters and taxpayers get into a full lather about the cost of new office space for a department that’s constantly explaining why it can’t take care of the roads it has.

The old Department of Highways often does good work. But officials running the department ran into a deep pothole with this plan. They need to reconsider what’s essential in these projects.

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