Featured, Peter Blake, Transportation

Blake: Without tolls, HWY 36 expansion wouldn’t happen

 You could hardly buy an environmental impact statement today for the $6.3 million the Colorado Highway Department spent on the land, labor, bulldozers, concrete, rebars and bridges needed for the original Denver-Boulder Turnpike more than 60 years ago.

Not that they needed EIS paper shufflers then. But the obvious question is: Why doesn’t the successor department of transportation finance the expanded road the same way it paid for the original one: By issuing its own bonds to be paid off by tolls?

The 30-year bonds were issued in 1950 and construction was finished two years later. A toll of 25 cents (15 if you exited at Broomfield) paid off the bonds in 1967, 13 years ahead of schedule, and the drive became free.

This time, CDOT awarded the job of finishing the ongoing expansion, from 88th Street in Louisville to Table Mesa in Boulder, to Plenary Roads Denver. The company is a division of an infrastructure business rooted in Australia that specializes in what are called “public-private partnerships.” It will build two additional lanes in each direction and manage the entire 21-mile road, not just the HOV/toll lanes. That includes snowplowing.

You’re right to be suspicious of P3s, since they are often designed to let private businesses stick their hands in public pockets, privatizing the profits and socializing the risk.

“We looked heavily” into the possibility of CDOT financing its own bonds, said spokeswoman Amy Ford. But as its “value report” indicates, the possibility of construction prices rising and revenue projections falling short made it too risky. So the state decided to shuffle off the risk to a private firm.

It’s also shuffling off the presumed profits, although the state will share in them 50-50 once the revenues reach a certain level.

As for the tolls, they could run as high as a maximum of $14 for a one-way trip, but Ford estimates they are more likely to run $4 to $6 during most rush hours and down to $1 to $1.25 off-peak, similar to what the exiting Interstate 25 toll lanes collect per mile. The tolls will be indexed for inflation in years to come.

The variable tolling system will be more sophisticated than the current one on I-25, with sensors in the roadway measuring the congestion and adjusting the toll accordingly every five minutes or so. The I-25 tolling, said Ford, is more “after the fact.”

The most controversial aspect of the toll lanes is that a vehicle wanting to use them for free must contain three people instead of two, starting in 2017. How that will be enforced hasn’t been revealed yet. There’s hardly a car left in America with a bench front seat seating three, and many side windows are darkened, making photographing or even seeing who’s in the back seat difficult. Indeed it’s hard enough for Denver’s infamous speed-trap cameras to catch a good image of who’s in the front seat through the windshield.

When more HOV/toll lanes are opened, we can expect to see the usual mannequins wearing hats and sunglasses in the front seat, pregnant women claiming they count as two, and dolls placed in baby seats in the back.

Perhaps someone will try here what was tried in California, which always leads in innovation. A man who owns a business put his articles of incorporation, unbuckled, on his passenger seat. He told the cop he was relying on the principle of corporate personhood and the California vehicle code, which defines a person as “natural persons and corporations.” The traffic court was unsympathetic, claiming that papers on the front seat don’t relieve traffic congestion.

But that’s California and its traffic courts set no precedents here. Maybe a Colorado judge will feel more bound by the letter of the law.

It’s only recently that residents of the Peoples Republic in Boulder have woken up and started protesting the contract, even though it was reported by, among others, Monte Whaley of The Denver Post as long ago as April 2013.

CDOT’s Ford laughed about the delayed protest. “I’ll take one on the chin and say yep, we could have done a better job in communicating all this, but the funny thing is, there was a lot of press coverage on it. Folks pay attention when they’re ready to, and they’re ready to right now.”

The transportation commission approved the contract last week despite a petition against it with 20,000 signatures. A Boulder group called Drive SunShine Institute, a renewable energy front, plans to file a lawsuit to stop it. Hundreds of protesters attended a couple of raucous meetings, and a few had to be dragged out by the state patrol. Some lawmakers protested the private operation of a road, even though they voted for the FASTER bill in 2009 that made it possible.

A Boulder Camera writer even managed to attribute the blame to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business lobbying group that is the current whipping boy of the Center for Media and Democracy and other progressive groups. ALEC only wishes it had the power and influence its enemies attribute to it. In fact, the FASTER bill was passed by the Democratic majorities in both House and Senate, and signed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. Every Republican legislator save one voted against it. And that includes former Rep. Glenn Vaad, R-Mead, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s nominee to the Public Utilities Commission. He was a member of ALEC and is blamed in the Camera piece as a perpetrator of the P3 contract.

Toll roads have been around for centuries. The best thing about them is that users pay for them, not the public at large. There is little or no hope that voters would approve an increase in the state gasoline tax, and without tolls, CDOT wouldn’t be able to expand U.S. 36 for another 20 years.  

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com

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