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Growth Pains: Water, Roads and Housing

Coping with all the new Coloradans and the strain on our infrastructure and resources


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Traffic is terrible, housing is expensive and water is becoming scarcer.

Welcome to Colorado.

State government officials are struggling with the influx of new residents who have pushed the population up 8.5 percent in five years to 5.6 million today, according to the State Demographers Office. Colorado is expected to add another 2.2 million people by 2040.

Over the last decade, more than 800,000 people have moved to Colorado, putting pressure on the state's roads and bridges and causing housing prices to skyrocket. And the scramble to build more housing has stressed the state's water supply. 

"It's pretty well known that we have major infrastructure needs on the water sector – not only to maintain what we have, but there's also need for new infrastructure to support new growth," says Amelia Nuding, senior water resource analyst with Western Resource Advocates, an organization dedicated to protecting land, air and water in the West.

By 2050, the projected shortage of water is 400,000 acre feet, and the state has created a water plan to help address that gap, Nuding says. The plan's focus is on conservation, such as installing water-efficient appliances, faucets, shower heads and toilets. 

Then there's the traffic.

The stress on roads and highways may be most pronounced in Denver, but the rest of the state is feeling the pressure, too. Traffic on Interstate 70 heading up to the mountains pollutes the towns between Denver ad the ski resorts. And all that traffic is expensive: Driving on roads in need of repair in Colorado costs each river $580 a year.

"A lot of people will say you need to be more efficient, that it's government waste, or you need to do more with less," says Amy Ford, communications director at the Colorado Department of Transportation. "We've been doing more with less for a long tie. Now we're doing less with less."

The solution, Ford says, is to use strategies like tolled express lanes, technology and mass transit. The $72 million Mountain Express Lane project on Interstate 70 between Empire and Idaho Springs diverts up to 900 vehicles a day to reduce congestion along the 13-mile corridor.

CDOT projects it needs $46 billion to carry it through 2040 – more than double the amount it expects to collect. The majority of its projects are funded through the gas tax, which has remained the same since 1991.

And affordable housing anywhere in the state is a myth. 

In October, the average sale price for a home in Denver rose 14.7 percent to $408,797 compared with the same month a year ago. Since 2000, the population has increased slightly more than the number of units build, both for sale and for rent, Denver housing economist Ryan McMaken says.

One glimmer of light: Rents, though pricey in new buildings, seem to have stabilized. In 2015, rent increased 12.7 percent over the previous year, while this year, the increase was just 5.1 percent. Even foreclosures reveal the housing crunch. Last year, there were 2,291 foreclosures statewide – way below the peak of 20,034 during the Great Recession in 2008.

"If you get into a possible foreclosure situation in this market, it's not even a big deal anymore," McMaken says. "Just sell your house. Somebody will buy it."

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Margaret Jackson

Margaret Jackson is an award-winning journalist who spent nearly 25 years in the newspaper industry, including seven years as a business reporter for The Denver Post covering residential and commercial real estate. She can be reached at myjackson7@gmail.com.

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