The advocacy group behind the Denver Deserves Sidewalks ballot initiative declared victory Sunday night after unofficial results showed the measure was moving forward.
The measure led by a margin of 55 to 45% – or nearly 25,000 votes – with only about 50,000 ballots left to count. That puts it on a “clear path to victory,” the Denver Streets Partnership said in a press release. The election results will not be certified until November 29th.
“I’m very excited about Denver’s future,” Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, said in an interview Monday. “I just think it’s great that Denver voters are prioritizing not just sidewalks, but what I believe is safety, accessibility and equity for everyone in our city.
Updated vote counts appear to show the measure has been approved since election night. If true, sidewalk repair and maintenance will be elevated to a level of importance equal to that of roads, said J. Skyler McKinley, a spokesman for AAA Colorado, who supported the measure. He said the vote will create a one-off “large-scale public works project.”
“It’s a big deal,” he said.
The initiative shifts responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and repairs from property owners to the city. It also collects a new fee from property owners that will bring in about $40 million each year, proponents say.
They believe this will allow the government over the next nine years to make necessary repairs and fill in missing sidewalks across the city. About 40% of the city’s streets have missing or substandard sidewalks, the city reported in 2019.
The initiative may see some changes from city leaders.
Locantore said she will soon contact the city’s Department of Transport and Infrastructure, which will be responsible for implementing the plan, as well as some members of the city council.
“Some City Council members have said they would like to make some changes to the program and we are very excited to be working with them on this,” Locantore said. “We just want to make sure we’re sticking to the spirit of the initiative that voters just passed.”
The city’s Department of Transport and Infrastructure has not yet responded to a request for comment. The city’s analysis of the measure was extremely critical, as it was forecast that repairs and construction would cost another billions and take almost 30 years – three times longer than Locantore expected.
Locantore disputed that analysis, arguing that the city did not explain why cost estimates increased from a previous 2019 estimate and that no large-scale land acquisition was required.
Nor does she expect the city council to revise the initiative. City leaders have in recent years rewritten at least one voter-approved citizens’ initiative that drastically changed them: the 2017 “green roof” initiative, which would have required green roofs on large new builds. It now gives those affected more opportunities to comply with the spirit of the law.
“It took some finesse to make it work in the Denver context,” Locantore said of the green roof initiative. “But I feel like we’ve already done all that groundwork here to come up with legislation that’s really really Denver-specific. And we’re just talking about minor refinements at this point.”
Councilor Kevin Flynn, who argued against the proposal throughout the campaign, quoted the green roof initiative in an email to Denverite Monday. He said city officials have been working with proponents of this measure to make changes once it is passed, and he hopes to do the same with the sidewalk initiative.
“The program that is written will fail if the issues are not addressed,” he said. “There’s not nearly enough money or time to do this, and the cost burden is so unfairly shared. … I’m confident we can find a way to get the sidewalk program working.”
During the campaign, Flynn criticized the sidewalk toll for being too onerous for some. As previously written, the annual fee for each property owner depends on how much of the property faces a street. Flynn said owners of large corner lots will be hit particularly hard. He identified a handful of addresses where homeowners can see annual bills ranging from $600 to over $1,100.
You can read more about it what the sidewalk measure could mean for you here.
In previous interviews, Locantore has said that the owner of a typical 50-foot-wide lot would only pay about $110 a year. They tied the measure’s fee to a property’s size to account for construction and maintenance costs, she said.
“It just costs more money to maintain larger properties,” she said in May.
How the sidewalk program will actually roll out is a “10-year question,” AAA Colorado’s McKinley said.
“Anytime you give the government a bunch of money — and we’ve seen that with the cost of regulating marijuana, for example — it gets a little blurry until we figure it out,” he said.
But the city should make every effort to make the measure successful, McKinley said, noting that the measure’s margin continues to increase as more ballots are counted.
“This doesn’t look like it’s going to be a close election,” he said. “It looks like Denver voters — a steady majority of them — said, ‘This is the right thing to do.’ ”
Sidewalks are now likely to be a major issue in next year’s wide-open race to replace outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock, McKinley said. Candidates can advocate for how they would implement the new program.
“We’re going to be talking about a lot of big transport reforms,” he said. “And now sidewalks will necessarily be a cornerstone of that — because that’s what voters dictated.”
Voters have also shown that Denver’s culture is changing, Locantore said.
“For a long time it was said: ‘This is a car town,'” says Locantore. “It was designed around the car and will always be a car city. And I no longer believe that’s true. I think there are more and more people living in Denver who don’t want to be dependent on a car.”