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State Audit Says U.S. 36 Partnership Is A Good Value For Taxpayers

Colorado Department of Transportation
A worker on U.S. 36

A state audit [.pdf] of the U.S. 36 express lanes project has found that procurement delays cost the state of Colorado an additional $5 million, but that overall "it provided the best value for taxpayers."

The audit report also targeted poor communication and a lack of transparency as additional issues.

The U.S. 36 project is a set of highway improvements partly funded by a private company. It is the first public-private partnership pursued by the Colorado Department of Transportation, and has been a contentious effort, with lawsuits filed and pushback from state legislators.

"[CDOT's High Performance Transportation Enterprise] did not adequately engage, inform, or educate two key stakeholder groups — legislators and the general public — during the project development phase of the project, and lacks a comprehensive open records and transparency plan for ensuring the availability and transparency of key information and timely compliance with the Colorado Opens Record Act," the Office of the State Auditor wrote in a press release about the audit.

Megan Castle, a spokeswoman with CDOT's High Performance Transportation Enterprise group, which managed the partnership, said the agency is already working to implement some of the recommendations.

"HPTE agrees with the audit recommendations to make our public private partnership processes more open, transparent and efficient," said Castle.

The partnership aspect of the project is what allowed the very complex parts of the project to come together, said Castle. The project, on the busy, often-congested highway running from Denver to Boulder, widens the road and includes tolled express lanes, rapid buses, a car pool lane and a bike way.

"We are able to offer all of these different mobility options and this is able to be delivered years faster than had it been done all with public financing," she said.

The Plenary Group, a consortium of private companies, will receive toll lane proceeds on the route between Denver and Boulder and maintain it for 50 years.

Toll lanes as a funding mechanism are becoming increasingly popular as transportation departments look beyond the gas tax for money. Colorado is no exception.

The state's transportation department is also looking at a public private partnership for another big project, the reconstruction of the I-70 viaduct just east of the intersection with I-25. CDOT's Castle said lessons learned from the U.S. 36 project will play out during that effort.

"We believe that our public participation and transparency efforts that are underway will be seen in the proposed I-70 East Project and for any and other all future P3 projects."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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