Angry residents voice concerns about public-private deal for US 36 tolls

CDOT is planning to hold a series of explanatory meetings starting Feb. 12, 2014, to explain a public-private deal it is trying to complete regarding the renovation of U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder.

A deal for a private company to help the Colorado Department of Transportation improve and maintain the Boulder Turnpike was finalized on Feb. 26, 2014.

WESTMINSTER, Colo. — It was a heated public meeting in Westminster Wednesday night where the Colorado Department of Transportation held a public meeting just days before it finalizes a controversial contract for privatization of toll lanes and maintenance of U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder.

Those questions were on the minds of a standing room only crowd made up of lots of angry residents who attended the first of two public meetings Wednesday night.

Officials from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) defended the terms of a private, 50-year contract involving the highway at the meeting in Westminster. The second meeting is Thursday at the Louisville Recreation Center.

“This is a meeting that should’ve been held 18 months ago, so what do we do?” one man told CDOT. Another said “I would actually not like to give something up until I’m almost 80.”

Plenary Roads Denver is the private company that CDOT contracted to complete the second phase of a $425 million plan to renovate, expand and maintain U.S. 36. The company, which has offices in Australia, Singapore, Canada and the U.S., is currently in the process of building toll lanes running in both directions on the highway.

The contract is all but done. It’s likely to be finalized and signed within two weeks. That information met with loud shouts and boos from the crowd at the meeting.

The company has already put up millions of dollars for improvements on U.S. 36. CDOT says without the public-private partnership, the improvements currently being made to the highway would not have happened for another two decades.

(The following information is from a previous story)

Under the terms of the current deal, Plenary would be responsible for maintaining U.S. 36 until 2063.

That’s not what has residents and some legislators concerned. What does is that Plenary would also receive all revenues from the toll lanes for the next 50 years under the terms of the current deal.

Some of the outcry has been focused not so much on the terms of the deal, but on the alleged secrecy that has surrounded it.

Late last month, Matt Jones, a state senator from Louisville, and 13 other Democratic lawmakers from around the state called for a 60-day review before “entering into a secret 50-year toll lane contract” for any privately-managed toll lanes on U.S. 36.

One concern the 14 lawmakers voiced in their letter centered on the time period of the deal, citing earlier data about U.S. 36, which was first opened as a toll road in 1952. The toll at that time was 25 cents, and it was lifted in 1968, much earlier than projected.

“The Denver-Boulder Turnpike started as a toll road under terms people knew about ahead of time,” lawmakers wrote. “It was paid off in 15 years, much shorter than 50, with terms people understood.”

Among other concerns voiced about the deal were the potential price of the toll, which could rise as high as $28 roundtrip during peak hours, language in the deal that may prevent the public sector from constructing or improving roads that compete with U.S. 36 and the notion that the toll lane may not be free for vehicles with two occupants — only those with three.

CDOT has called some of the criticisms of the deal “simply erroneous,” including the suggestion that the toll could balloon to as high as $28 roundtrip. Instead, CDOT officials have said, it’s more likely the toll would end up costing commuters $5 to $6 roundtrip.

Furthermore, CDOT has argued without a public-private partnership, like the one contained in the currently-constructed deal with Plenary, U.S. 36 renovations would still be decades away due to a lack of public funding.

Plenary has not yet commented on the deal, referring all those seeking comment to CDOT.

At stake in this debate, in the minds of some lawmakers, is setting a potentially-dangerous precedent for the future privatization of toll lanes on other Colorado highways, including I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins, C-470 in the southwest Denver Metro area, and I-70 through central Denver.

A group called Friends of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission seems to believe that process has begun, and has posted a petition online calling on the Colorado Senate and House to strip local government agencies of the ability to privatize any and all Colorado roads.

A second public meeting on the subject is scheduled Thursday at the former Sam’s Club at 550 S. McCaslin Blvd., Louisville, Colo. at 6:30 p.m.