Fri February 14, 2014

Lawmakers Hold Hearing On U.S. 36 Flap

Transportation officials told Colorado lawmakers Thursday that they could’ve done more to educate the public about a new public private partnership on U.S. 36 – but they’re still moving ahead with the plan. The project to ease congestion between Denver and Boulder has been in the works for more than a decade, and would be the first of its kind in the state.

Bente Birkeland reports from the state capitol

Every county and city government along U.S. 36 has already signed off the public-private plan. It involves a 50 year contract with the Plenary Group to build and maintain a third lane for drivers with two or more passengers, rapid buses, or drivers who pay a toll. Many critics say the plan was done in secret - something the Colorado Department of Transportation disputes.

“I think we’ve been absolutely open and transparent about what we’re trying to do,” said CDOT Executive Director Don Hunt.

“You can see there were lots of meeting with mayors, elected officials, stakeholders, business groups.”

"The people that are emailing me right now asking for my resignation over this are not the nerds, but they are the people that drive their cars down the highway."

Despite all the meetings and buy in, many members of the public still have serious concerns. In recent weeks hundreds of people have voiced their opposition. They worry the toll rates will be too high, and don’t want a private company maintaining the highway.

“There’s never enough information to enough people in enough time,” said Representative Cherylin Peniston (D-Westminster). She signed  a letter along with 13 other lawmakers asking C-DOT to slow down the project. “Our public tells us when we don’t give them enough information.”

Lawmakers say it’s difficult to get the average person interested in transportation and going to public meetings.

“Nerds go to these meetings. I go to these meetings,” said Representative Tracy Kraft Tharp (D-Arvada). “The people that are emailing me right now asking for my resignation over this are not the nerds, but they are the people that drive their cars down the highway.”

The genesis of the public-private partnership stems from a state law passed by Democrats in 2009. It created the High Performance Transportation Enterprise at CDOT and charged it with coming up with creative ways to finance road construction and repair. Democratic House Transportation Committee Chair Max Tyler calls the legislation forward thinking.

“I’m very proud, I’m very proud of that work that we did here,” said Tyler. “All the evidence points to the fact that we cannot build new capacity in the state of Colorado on the budgets we have right now. And that public-private partnerships will be an ever-increasing integral part of our transportation funding.”

During the several hour hearing, CDOT Executive Director Don Hunt took questions from lawmakers in stride, saying some push back in the final stages of any major plan is to be expected.

“Like all transportation projects, you work on them ten years; it’s at the last hearing, the last moment the last minute that’s when we run into the greatest trouble,” said Hunt. "We can do better. Lord knows wouldn’t be here today if we’d done a better job on public involvement."

CDOT officials say they couldn’t reveal all the contents of the final private contract because it’s propriety. Lawmakers admit there’s been a lot of misinformation about plans for U.S. 36.

Several Democrats hinted at a change in law to give legislators more oversight over future transportation funding projects. But for now the project is moving forward and expected to be complete in 2016.