On February 19th the High Performance Transportation Enterprise convened in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s auditorium in Denver, opening its doors to the public to vent their concerns about the impending deal giving Plenary Roads control of much of U.S. highway 36.
Among those wishing to speak were Ken Beitel and Cliff Smedley of the Drive SunShine Institute (DSI), a Boulder-based company that offers employers a way to invest in clean energy. The most vocal opposition, DSI had recently threatened a lawsuit against CDOT claiming the environmental evaluation of the pending project had been carried out improperly.
As the HPTE panel announced it was shuffling the open speaking agenda, DSI’s lawyer Karen Hammer objected, to no avail. When Beitel and Smedley’s requests to donate
Hammer their time were similarly refused, angry protests ensued. State troopers forcibly removed all three from the room. As the Denver Post reported, as Smedley was pulled away he yelled, “I spent nine years in the National Guard to try and uphold the law, and today all that was smashed.”
In the days following the hearing, the deal was quietly finalized. By the 21st the Colorado Transportation Commission had unanimously signed off on the contract, and by the following Wednesday the concluding signatures were inked.
After a year of negotiations, the tumultuous race to the finish line both brought to light the unsavory way CDOT handled the deal and spawned myriad myths about what U.S. 36 would look like under private operation. Here are a few: All of 36 is now a toll road. It will cost $17 to drive from Boulder to Denver (as if gas isn’t enough of an expense). Wall Street overlords Goldman Sachs will be running the freeway.
Like any governmental debacle (let’s not get carried away with the word “scandal”) there are elements of truth here—and there is also a healthy dose of sensationalist misconceptions.
Let’s start at the beginning. The rationale for a private overhaul is to accelerate the construction of new express lanes, provide efficient maintenance of existing general lanes, create new commuter bike paths and—as proponents are fond of saying—“support continued economic growth of the U.S. 36 corridor.” (CDOT’s executive director Don Hunt, upon the deal’s closing.)
The deal deflects some financial responsibility for continued construction away from the state. “It really comes back to money,” CDOT spokesperson Amy Ford said. “CDOT has an annual budget shortfall of about $600-700 million to address the transportation needs around the state, and 80-90% of our current budget is
dedicated to maintenance.”