A simmering dispute over the future operation and maintenance of the Boulder Turnpike will take center today and tomorrow when Colorado transportation officials go before the public to defend the terms of a private 50-year contract for the highway.
Colorado Department of Transportation officials will address a growing chorus of concern that the agency is forging a deal with Plenary Roads Denver that hands a disproportionate amount of power and control over the Boulder-to-Denver highway to
Plenary, a private consortium chosen last spring by CDOT to complete the second phase of the $425 million U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project and maintain the entire corridor, including ice and snow removal, until 2063.
But before that happens, Sunshine laws should force Colorado's DOT to put all its cards on the table so citizens and their elected representatives are fully informed.
According to Boulder's Daily Camera newspaper, the public-private partnership, which is being overseen by CDOT's High-Performance Transportation Enterprise financing arm, also gives the firm maintenance responsibilities along Interstate 25, from U.S. 36 to downtown Denver.
Under the deal, Plenary Roads Denver would collect all revenues from the toll lanes currently being constructed in each direction of the turnpike.
"Before any state highway is privatized, let's have a public discussion about the merits of privatization versus publicly funding the project," said Ken Beitel, spokesman for the Boulder-based alternative energy advocacy group Drive SunShine Institute. "We have no problem with well-written public-private agreements, but this particular deal poses an extreme risk to the Colorado taxpayer."
Among the concerns, Beitel said, is language in a summary of the contract recently released by CDOT that states that a tolled roundtrip voyage between Boulder and Denver cost as much as $28 during peak times, and be adjusted upward for inflation. And the number of occupants per vehicle to qualify as high occupancy, and thus be exempt from tolls, would rise from two to three.
He said the agreement will hamstring the state by making it difficult for it to build roads near the U.S. 36 corridor that might compete with the highway.
"There is language that says if an unplanned facility is constructed that lowers toll revenues on U.S. 36, that the state of Colorado or a municipality that has built the facility will have to compensate Plenary (for) 50 years of lost toll revenue," Beitel said.
But CDOT maintains the concerns are unfounded. "Without a public-private partnership like the one being created with Plenary, improvements to U.S. 36 would still be 20 years away because funding through traditional avenues simply isn't there," says spokeswoman Amy Ford.
Nonetheless, State Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said the lack of transparency on the CDOT-Plenary contract bothers him.
He and 13 of his colleagues late last month called on CDOT to provide lawmakers 60 days to go over the contract in detail. He said he hasn't gotten a response from the agency, though CDOT does plan to give a presentation on the proposed agreement at the state Capitol on Thursday.
"We shouldn't have secret deals," Jones said. "We should be able to look at the whole contract and see how the state and the company are treated.
"But we can't, because we can't see the contract."
Let's see if Colorado can make significant progress on US36. Ford says specifics of the P3 contract must be kept under wraps, because proprietary financial information in the agreement needs to remain private.
Baloney. If this agreement is justifiable, it must withstand the rigorous public scrutiny it deserves. The veil of secrecy is insulting; it's a disservice to all Coloradoans.