Denver, Dick Wadhams, Elections, Politics, Transportation

Wadhams: Big public works projects don’t have to be money pits

Coloradans are enduring two massive airport and highway construction projects that have been plagued by varying degrees of mismanagement, cost overruns, contractor controversies and missed deadlines. But as we know from another massive highway project from 15 years ago, it does not have to be this way.

The Great Hall Project at Denver International Airport is designed to “enhance safety and security, improve passenger flow, and increase capacity” according to its website. Talks about the project started in 2017 with a ballpark cost of just under $1 billion, including some long-term maintenance and operating costs, and a completion date of 2021. Then price estimates crept to $1.3 billion and then $1.8 billion, and if you added in financing costs really it was going to be closer to $2.2 billion.

Construction was halted when the original contractor, Great Hall Partners, was fired in 2019 after a series of confrontations over unanticipated costs. Great Hall Partners warned the City of Denver that costs could explode by even more and the completion date could extend to 2025 according to a report by CBS4.

While the City of Denver claims to be making progress in reducing these cost and time overruns, there is no doubt this massive project will cost more than projected, will deliver less than promised and will not be completed on time.

These problems invoke memories of the delay in getting DIA opened in the first place in 1993 even after the overall airport was completed. Problems with an automated baggage system delayed the opening until 1995. As planes flew over DIA on their approach to the old and now defunct Stapleton International Airport, it was not uncommon for a pilot to point out the brand new but not operational airport below as snickers rippled through the passenger cabin.

Meanwhile, the Central I-70 Project to expand I-70 from six to eight lanes through the middle of Denver began in 2018 and was projected to be done in 2022. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is also going through disagreements with the contractors and the project will not be done on time or within the original budget, even though it appears the contractor may be the one eating the additional costs and not the taxpayers for once.

Massive projects do not have to be mired in mismanagement, long delays, busted budgets and contractor controversy. We know this from the transformational T-REX project.

Gov. Bill Owens, the only Republican governor to be elected in the past 50 years, ran on a clear agenda in 1998 to cut taxes, reform education and improve transportation. As a state legislator and state treasurer, Owens was a strong fiscal conservative who supported tax cuts and restraining the growth of state government.

But his plan to improve transportation without raising taxes was a bold departure from previous highway funding debates. Owens proposed that the state should issue bonds against future federal gas tax revenues so that 24 high-priority projects across the state as identified by CDOT, including the expansion of I-25 in the heavily congested southeast metro Denver corridor could be accelerated, thereby reducing their costs.

Although they had worked together on education reform, Owens and former Governor Roy Romer disagreed on whether I-25 could be expanded due to the narrow footprint through the southeast corridor and also alleged objections from the Federal Highway Administration. But RTD board member Jon Caldara, now president of the libertarian Independence Institute in Denver, ascertained there was no federal impediment to expanding I-25.

The Owens plan became known as TRANS, Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes, and shortly after his inauguration as governor in 1999 he successfully got it approved by a Republican-controlled legislature. But the Democratic legislative leadership sued the new governor in the Colorado Supreme Court arguing that our TABOR amendment (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) required TRANS to be approved by a vote of the people.

The Supreme Court ruled that TRANS did have to go to a statewide vote and Owens led the campaign to approve it in November 1999. He built a strong coalition of support by joining forces with advocates of building light rail by RTD in the southeast corridor. Political pundits and many Democrats predicted TRANS would fail, thereby politically crippling the new Republican governor for the rest of his term.

Less than a year after being elected governor, Owens was back on the campaign trail to pass Referendum A on the ballot to approve TRANS. Colorado voters approved TRANS by a margin of 62% to 38% carrying 47 out of 63 counties including every county in the Denver metro area. Owens also campaigned for the RTD light rail ballot measure in metro Denver which was approved by a 65-35 margin.

Groundbreaking for the newly named T-REX project to widen I-25 in conjunction with building light rail in the southeast corridor was held in September 2001 with a projected completion date in 2008.

While Owens was the driving force behind the passage of TRANS in 1999 after making it a campaign priority in 1998, the day-to-day execution of this massive project was under the direction of Tom Norton who had been appointed by Owens as CDOT executive director. Norton was an engineer and a former President of the Colorado State Senate from Greeley.

Under Norton’s leadership, T-REX was completed two years early with no major controversies in 2006 and came in $100 million under the original $1.7 billion budget.

Owens proved that massive projects can be done efficiently, on time, under budget, and without money-draining controversies. The people of Colorado deserve nothing less today and should keep this in mind as another election for governor looms in 2022 and mayor in 2023.

Dick Wadhams served as press secretary for Gov. Bill Owens and managed the campaign to pass the Owens transportation plan, Referendum A, in 1999.


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