Colorado Springs — Confusion reigned in El Paso County this week over a federal grant proposal to fund the “I-25 Gap” improvement project between Castle Rock and Monument. In November El Paso County submitted a Federal Highway Administration grant application under a cover letter signed by Board of County Commissioners President Darryl Glenn. The application, which asks for $65 million and specifies the inclusion of toll lanes, was not the subject of any public hearings prior to submission.
Since finding out about the proposed toll lanes, area residents have raised objections with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
In a Facebook video on Dec. 17, State Representative Paul Lundeen (R-El Paso County) said, “CDOT shouldn’t be allowed to hold the people of southern Colorado hostage behind a toll lane. If we were building a new general use lane plus a toll lane for a total of 4 lanes it might be an interesting discussion, but tolling the new third lane that is years past due is a wrong turn.”
Voting 4-0 the El Paso Board of County Commissioners ratified a resolution opposing construction of new toll lanes on Thursday, Dec. 21st. Commissioner Longinos Gonzales Jr. was absent. Dave Rose, public information officer for the county introduced the emergency resolution at the Dec. 19th regular meeting in response to news reports and an editorial detailing public concerns over toll lanes.
A recent Colorado Springs Gazette house editorial “admonished” BOCC President Darryl Glenn for signing the grant cover letter specifying the intent to build toll lanes and then claiming that his language in the letter was “boilerplate.”
In a Dec.19 Gazette article, reporter Rachel Riley wrote, “Glenn, who was interviewed Monday, assailed the story Tuesday. He said it failed to make it clear that county officials had no discretion over the application contents and were required to follow a template provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation.”
In turn, Glenn lashed out at the newspaper claiming two Gazette news articles and the editorial were “misleading” and examples of “irresponsible journalism.”
The Gazette reported Glenn’s criticism on Dec. 19th, “Any implication by The Gazette and their headlines and their reporter that somehow I’ve been untruthful or misled (the public), that is unacceptable, and that’s why we’re here today.”
Gazette Editorial Page Editor Wayne Laugesen responded, “I and the rest of the Editorial Board respect and admire Commissioner Glen as an attorney and public servant. Of all people, he should know that signing a document, whether a letter or a contract, means he agrees with the content at the time he signs it. If he has changed his mind, that’s fine. It does not make the letter meaningless or untrue.”
Riley also reported, “Amy Ford, a CDOT spokeswoman, said the grant proposal was developed through a CDOT-led collaborative process that included county staff and some commissioners, as well as representatives from other local governments. Much of it was written by a consultant team with input from those involved, she said.”
But there wasn’t any input from other members of the El Paso BOCC according to Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who said at Thursday’s meeting, “Per a BOCC resolution there is a process for grant applications that can be pursued by staff and then the president can approve it without the board seeing it. I did not see the grant application until last Friday.” Littleton explained that a previous BOCC passed the authorizing resolution prior to her 2010 election.
The Glenn-signed cover letter, which establishes El Paso County as the lead agency for the grant request states, “The proposal is to construct a tolled express lane in each direction along with a number of safety improvements to enhance mobility, address specific safety hot spots and provide increased travel reliability for users of the corridor.”
However, at the Thursday meeting County Engineer Jennifer Irvin said, “This grant identified one of the options as being the managed lane. The proposed action has not been decided. There are three options on the table as outlined in the resolution.”
Shortly after that statement she told the board, “At no point has CDOT determined that the managed lanes are the preferred design.”
Irvin’s statement contradicts the grant application itself that says, “The project will include the construction of a tolled managed lane (express lane) in each direction from Monument to Castle Rock.” It does not mention any other options.
CDOT has not yet officially decided on managed toll lanes, but the Colorado Transportation Commission, which oversees CDOT, “Requires that managed lanes be strongly considered during the planning process.”
Irvin said, “The grant application does not require the board to enter into any contract. The board is not required to do anything by this grant application. If the award comes back to us that is the decision point whether the board agrees to accept the grant with all the conditions that come with it.”
But if the award specifies that the money is to be used to construct managed toll lanes, as requested, the BOCC would have to make a decision either to accept the grant with the toll lane requirement or reject the grant entirely, leaving the I-25 Gap project in financial jeopardy.
According to Dave Rose, Chief Public Information Officer for El Paso County, adding options other than what’s specified would require withdrawing the current application. Rose added that it’s unknown if the federal government would permit an extension in order to amend the grant request.
While voting to oppose toll lanes, Commissioner Mark Waller was adamant that the project must proceed. “I want to make it clear what we are trying to do,” Waller said, “This is a significant public safety issue that we all have the obligation to address. If I were king for a day up in Denver I would make sure that transportation was a priority. We want to see this project happen sooner than later. We understand the need to protect our constituents. This project is going to get built and it’s going to save lives.”