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Council approves engineering for additional whitewater features

Expressing its pleasure with existing whitewater features and signaling a willingness to construct more improvements in the river, the Pagosa Springs Town Council voted Tuesday night to take money from planned improvements on Lewis Street (delayed until 2011) and put some of those funds into engineering costs for “Up to six additional (whitewater) features,” in the words of Town Manager David Mitchem.

Engineering was proposed for three additional features at the U.S. 160 bridge in the reach between the San Juan Historical Society Museum and Cotton Hole, with two additional features between the Apache Street bridge and Yamaguchi Park.

According to Chris Pitcher from Riverbend Engineering, the sixth feature Mitchem referred to would be determined by the amount of drop at either location.

In January, council adopted a five-year capital improvement plan, based on recommendations from consultants hired in 2009. Council revised that plan in February for improvements and repaving on Lewis Street between North 1st and North 4th streets instead of January’s proposal to incrementally address individual blocks of Lewis Street over a period of four years.

In May, Mitchem told council that town staff was investigating the possibility that Lewis Street improvements could be eligible for American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) funding (with stimulus money paying for up to 80 percent of the project) and that the project might be postponed for a year in order to pursue those grants.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mitchem’s presentation to council stated that the project had indeed been determined appropriate for ARRA funding and, in applying for those funds, the Lewis Street project would be moved back to a 2011 start date while federal money was pursued.

With the Lewis Street plan postponed and $308,724 in the town’s 2010 budget appropriated for capital improvements, Mitchem presented several alternative expenditures for this year. Along with the aforementioned engineering costs for whitewater river features, other projects included:

• Chip and seal on 6th Street.

• Purchasing a new street sweeper (partially funded from Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money).

• Creating a gravel river walk trail across Springs Resort property, connecting existing trails.

• Repaving the portion of the river walk trail from the lower pedestrian bridge to McCabe Creek.

• Signage to the San Juan Trailhead, Disc Golf, Yamaguchi Park, Pagosa Springs High School and others, as well as a four-way stop sign at 8th and Piedra streets.

• A trash Dumpster enclosure at Town Hall (bringing the town in compliance with its own codes).

Having proposed those expenditures, Mitchem stated that the revised 2010 capital improvement plan would return $38,724 to Capital Improvement Reserves while holding back $45,542 in expenditures mandated in council’s decision in May to cut an additional 5 percent from the budget (due to poor sales tax revenue receipts in February and March).

However, Mitchem indicated that, should May or June sales tax receipts indicate positive news in local retail sales (April sales tax receipts were up 5.97 percent from the previous year), other capital improvement projects could be addressed if the town loosened existing budgetary constraints due to positive economic news.

Council member Shari Pierce took exception with expenditures allocated to river engineering while other projects remain unfinished, specifically, additional portions of the river walk trail.

“Believe me, I’m not opposed to river improvements,” Pierce said, asking Mitchem if other neglected projects could take priority.

“It’s very much a matter of timing,” Mitchem responded, explaining that with engineering completed in the summer, amended permits with the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) could be processed during the winter, meeting nature’s deadline of diminished water levels in the early spring for construction of those whitewater structures.

“Maybe we need to be taking care of the infrastructure we have in place instead of engineering new river features,” said Pierce, adding that repaving of the portion of the river walk trail from the lower pedestrian bridge to McCabe Creek should be extended to Sixth Street where the trail, she said, was not just in dire need of repair, but was, in places, dangerous.

Mitchem assured Pierce that, should the town free up money due to countermanding current budget cuts, that money would be dedicated to extending river walk repaving to Sixth Street.

Council member Darrell Cotton said, “I agree with trustee Pierce. I get more flack for what we haven’t finished than for what we haven’t done.”

Making a motion to accept Mitchem’s revised capital improvement plan for this year, council member Don Volger qualified the resolution, “With the additional comment that we place a priority on the completion of the river walk to Sixth Street.”

Pierce asked Volger if he would amend his motion to exclude whitewater feature engineering in favor of additional paving of the river walk (especially in light of no stipulated funding for both projects).

After a long pause, Volger answered succinctly, “No.”

With only Pierce voting against, council approved the motion, apparently reflecting the sentiments of council member Stan Holt, who said, “If we could measure our economy based on the number of tubes on the river, we’re going to have a pretty good July.”

Construction of two additional whitewater wave features, located adjacent to Town Park, is scheduled this fall or early winter. If the ACoE issues permits on engineering completed this summer and weather cooperates next spring, the San Juan River running through downtown Pagosa Springs will be radically changed.

jim@pagosasun.com