Colorado DOT meets public resistance to tolls on I-70, too

Link to article here.

Note secrecy and non-compete clauses are the name of the game with P3s.

Critics say CDOT making same U.S. 36 mistakes on I-70
By Monte Whaley
The Denver Post
July 27, 2014

State highway officials promoting a $1.8 billion remake of Interstate 70 in northeast Denver are threatening to stumble into the same public relations mess that mired the U.S. 36 project earlier this year.

Or so say state Sen. Matt Jones and critics of the plan to add two toll lanes in each direction on I-70 from I-25 to Tower Road and remove a worn viaduct between Brighton Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard.

"After all the fallout over the handling of the U.S. 36 project," said Jones, a Louisville Democrat, "it appears things have not changed much."

Jones and others claim the Colorado Department of Transportation recently rammed through a recommendation to turn the retooling of I-70 into a public-private partnership, similar to the 50-year agreement CDOT sealed for U.S. 36 between Boulder and Denver.

The agency also touted an online poll, conducted among 1,643 visitors on CDOT's website from June 24 to July 9, that showed more than 50 percent of respondents want some sort of tolling and public-private partnerships to pay for new roads and maintenance. Nearly 37 percent said they wanted to increase the state gas tax or sales tax to pay for more free lanes, the poll said.

Thaddeus Tecza, a senior instructor emeritus of political science at the University of Colorado, said from an academic perspective the poll "was a joke. It was one of the most biased polls I've ever seen."

CDOT officials, however, say the poll merely gauged public appetite for private firms to help oversee and construct state road projects. It won't be used to fuel policies.

"The poll was not necessarily valid research," said CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford. "We just wanted to take a pulse of where people are on this issue."

The original recommendation from CDOT planners to the Colorado Transportation Commission on July 17 to pursue public-private partnerships over other arrangements for I-70 improvements has also been altered.

The new recommendation says that any decision by the High Performance Transportation Enterprise — the CDOT arm that oversees highway tolling — can be modified by the transportation commission to include other alternatives.

"We want to provide different options so the public can be educated in a very open process," said Ford.

In fact, CDOT says, it is just getting started in involving the public in paring down the alternatives for I-70, including public-private partnerships.

But Jones said that so far, CDOT's handling of the I-70 debate mirrors what happened before the agency's pact with Plenary Roads Denver was sealed for U.S. 36.

In that case, critics said details of the contract — which allowed Plenary to manage and collect tolls on U.S. 36 for 50 years — were kept hidden for too long.

Jones sponsored a bill in the last legislative session that would have required legislative approval of a variety of provisions of future public-private deals, including contract terms of more than 35 years and noncompete clauses.

Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed Senate Bill 197, saying it would have discouraged private firms from investing in any future road bills. Hickenlooper, however, issued an executive order mandating more legislative and public review of any future public-private partnership.

That doesn't satisfy Jones. "There is a predisposition to a private, long-term deal," he said. "Even the staffing is all ready to go."

CDOT, he added, doesn't necessarily have to rely on private firms to help maintain and finance the I-70 redo. It has shown it can handle large road projects, including fixing Colorado roads damaged by September flooding.

"I have more confidence in them than they do themselves," Jones said.

Ford said Jones' assessment of CDOT is "flattering." But private contractors have long played key roles in road contracts, including during flood recovery, she said.

CDOT also doesn't intend to enter into a 50-year term for I-70, said Mike Cheroutes, director of the HPTE.

Tecza and a persistent group of urban planners, architects and others have blasted the CDOT plan for I-70, including the lowering of the highway between the Swansea and Elyria neighborhoods and adding an 800-foot cover along a stretch of I-70.

They prefer closing I-70 between Wadsworth Boulevard and Central Park Boulevard and diverting traffic north onto I-76 and I-270. A reconstructed Brighton Boulevard would then funnel traffic from DIA, Green Valley Ranch and Montbello into downtown Denver.

Their alternative is quickly gaining steam due, in part, to suspicions surrounding the earlier deal for U.S. 36, Tecza said.

"We've heard from plenty of people who had a bad reaction to what happened with U.S. 36," Tecza said.

But, Ford said, things will be different this time.

"We intend to get the public engagement piece kicked off earlier than we did for U.S. 36," she said.