Surprising CDOT, Lawmakers Push Back Over U.S. 36 Public-Private Partnership
Roughly 100,000 cars travel along U.S. Highway 36 between Boulder and Denver each day. In a bid to ease congestion, Colorado is embarking into uncharted territory as the state’s department of transportation is creating a public-private partnership.
Update 7:00 a.m. 02/13/2014 - CDOT held a public meeting Wednesday evening in Westminster on the partnership, a play-by-play of the meeting and video can be found here.
Another meeting is scheduled for Feb. 13 in Louisville, Colo at the Louisville Rec Center starting at 6:30 p.m.
Update 11:17 a.m. 02/13/2014 - It has been announced that the Feb. 13 meeting has been moved from the original location of the Louisville Rec Center to the empty Sam's Club at 550 McCaslin Blvd.
Colorado Department of Transportation officials say they don’t have the money to repair and maintain all the state’s roads and bridges and this agreement is necessary. Several lawmakers have serious concerns and want to slow down the project.
With drivers having to endure up to 4 hours of severe congestion during rush hour and significant growth on the horizon, road planners say the road stretch needs major improvements including new express lanes.
“In the case of this project we would’ve had to come up with $20-25 million more to get it even constructed, the second phase,” said Mike Cheroutes with the Colorado of Department of Transportation’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise. “And that kind of money is hard for anyone to get a hold of.”
CDOT’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise is charged with pursing innovative ways to finance road construction and find partnerships. The U.S. 36 project is a top priority.
“When you’re faced with alternatives and you don’t have a lot of alternatives you move forward with what you’ve got,” Cheroutes said.
“What you’ve got” in this case, says Cheroutes, is entering into a 50 year contract with the Plenary Group. The Australian company plans to spend $180 million to build a toll lane and maintain U.S. 36.
While she supports the concept, House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder) says she’s not sold on the project.
“I don’t oppose public private partnerships,” said Hullinghorst. “I think it is unfortunately one of the ways we’re going to have to look at financing things like this because there’s really no money to do it otherwise.”
There are concerns though. Hullinghorst and 13 other lawmakers signed a letter to get answers from state transportation officials.
"One concern is the state’s liability when you enter into a long term contract like this and what they would have to stand up for if something went wrong with the private business,” said Hullinghorst.
State officials say Colorado is woefully short of transportation funds. The gas tax brings in less money than it used to because cars are more fuel efficient. Raising the tax is one option, but politicians note that the public doesn’t support a higher tax.
The project is also raising questions from some groups concerned about toll rates.
“Privatization is happening remarkably quickly,” said Ken Beitel is with the Drive SunShine Institute, a clean energy nonprofit. “One of the many problems with it is the Colorado voter loses say about what can happen on the road. And public policy for Colorado highways will be set by the private sector.”
CDOT officials say they’ve held countless public meetings on the U.S. 36 project and are surprised at the push back. House Transportation Committee Chair Max Tyler (D-Lakewood) is looking forward to getting more information. Tyler didn’t sign the letter expressing concern, but will chair an upcoming briefing on the topic.
“We need to understand that the taxpayer is going to get the best value for the money,” said Tyler. He understands public private partnerships may be the wave of the future, but he remains skeptical.
“I believe a public good should be paid for by the community at large,” said Tyler. “I think we’re kind of advocating our responsibility to ourselves to make sure we have good strong infrastructure. If we’re putting it off to the private sector partially it’s because people say, I well don’t want to pay for that, but it is roads everybody uses.”
Even with the hearing – the High Performance Transportation Enterprise says it’s still on track to sign the deal with the Plenary group soon. The U.S. 36 Venture is expected to be complete in 2016.