CO: Harsh Words for CDOT at Public Meeting on 50-Year U.S. 36 Contract

Feb. 13--WESTMINSTER -- Colorado Department of Transportation officials took a verbal beating Wednesday night from a crowd of hundreds who blasted the agency for partnering with a private firm to maintain and operate U.S. 36 between Boulder and Denver for the next 50 years.

Many of those speaking out said CDOT effectively signed a "secret" deal last year with Plenary Roads Denver, a multinational six-company consortium, that allows the firm to collect revenues from toll lanes being built in both directions of the highway in exchange for operating the road and providing ice and snow removal services on U.S. 36 and parts of Interstate 25 until 2063.

The U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project, a $425 million endeavor that will add a toll/transit/high-occupancy vehicle lane in each direction of the highway, has been under construction since the summer of 2012.

Many who showed up at Wednesday's meeting at City Park Recreation Center in Westminster claimed the deal with Plenary amounts to privatization of the Boulder Turnpike without the consent of the taxpayers who use it. Many others were incensed that they were only hearing about the deal days before it's due to be finalized.

"But you've already signed this," protested Jim Hoffmeister, of Boulder. "This meeting should have been held 18 months ago."

CDOT has only released a summary version of the contract with Plenary, prompting many in the crowd to demand that the full 600-page legal document be made public before it is finalized. Others urged CDOT to jettison the contract altogether.

"We obviously don't want this -- that's what this is all about," yelled one man, as the meeting devolved into periodic bouts of jeering and heckling.

Mike Skirpan, of Boulder, said the length of the contract is "an insane amount of time" that essentially locks the state into a contract with Plenary that leaves little flexibility for it to incorporate future transportation technologies into the highway or deal with unforeseen circumstances.

"I'd like to not see something given up until I'm almost 80," Skirpan said.

Others reserved their anger at the plan to increase the threshold for high-occupancy -- and thus toll-free vehicles -- from one passenger to two.

CDOT is hosting a second meeting on the topic at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Louisville Recreation Center.

Deal accelerates U.S. 36 improvements

CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford defended the deal with Plenary as a good deal for Colorado. She said with her agency's declining budget -- it was at $1.2 billion for this fiscal year, down from $1.5 billion in 2007 -- CDOT has to be creative in how it approaches the construction of road projects.

Public-private partnerships is one way to get the private sector to put up money for a project and assume the risk if toll revenues come up short, she said.

"What is the best deal for Colorado and what is the right approach to deliver a project?" Ford said. "(This partnership) allowed us to accelerate this project by 20 years."

Without congestion relief in the form of the added lanes to handle bus rapid transit, high-occupancy vehicles and motorists willing to pay a toll to save time, Ford said traffic volumes on U.S. 36 over the next couple of decades would become unbearable.

Mike Cheroutes, director of CDOT's High-Performance Transportation Enterprise, said the arrangement with Plenary amounts to a "lease" of the project to the firm, not a giveaway. He said excess toll revenues won't go into Plenary's pockets but will be redirected to future road improvements in the northwest corridor.

"We're not giving away the revenue for 50 years -- there's a share agreement for 50 years," he said.

And he said if circumstances change that require changes to the contract, adjustments can be made.

"Contracts can always be amended," Cheroutes said.

Ford said that because the contract with Plenary -- which is part of the multinational Plenary Group -- contains proprietary financial information, it can't be publicized until it is finalized.

'Tough questions' to come from lawmakers

That didn't sit well with Travis Smith, of Denver, who said taxpayers shouldn't take CDOT at its word that all is well with the contract.

"I've been in business for 20 years as a CEO, and I never sign anything without reading the entire contract," he said to robust applause.

State Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, who represents parts of Westminster and Arvada, said after the meeting that she is frustrated that CDOT has not responded to a request late last month from 14 state lawmakers to have 60 days to review the contract.

Kraft-Tharp will be part of the House and Senate joint transportation committee scheduled to meet with CDOT officials Thursday morning to discuss the contract.

"Tomorrow is our opportunity to ask them tough questions," she said. "What we can do is put pressure on them that we want transparency and public scrutiny."

Contact Camera Staff Writer John Aguilar at 303-473-1389 or aguilarj@dailycamera.com.

Copyright 2014 - Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

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