US 36 privatization plan OK’d after opponents are tossed at CDOT meeting

DENVER — Three people who oppose the state’s plan to privatize U.S. Highway 36 in order to fund a major infrastructure improvement project were forcibly removed from a meeting Wednesday afternoon where they’d hoped to speak before the Colorado Dept. of Transportation board overseeing the project.

State troopers were asked to remove Ken Beitel, who heads up the Drive Sunshine Institute, a group of people opposed to the public-private partnership and its attorney, Karen Hammer, after she was not allowed to speak in place of Cliff Smedling, another group member, who had signed up and been called on but wanted to cede his three minutes to her.

“It’s a very radical action by the board to say you as an attorney cannot speak here today,” Hammer told reporters being forcibly walked out of the hearing room and put into an elevator down to the building’s first floor. “I believe they didn’t allow that because they didn’t want to hear the substance of what Cliff wanted to say.”

CDOT’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise board, created to oversee public-private partnerships enabled by 2009’s FASTER legislation, issued rules and procedures for Wednesday’s meeting on Tuesday night, sending them to media outlets and to groups like Beitel’s.

None of the individuals escorted out of the building were arrested. In the lobby, Hammer said that it wasn’t her plan to create a confrontation.

Interestingly, an email Tuesday from Beitel urging members of the media to cover Wednesday’s hearing promised a more cordial situation than what actually took place.

“We are emphasising to folks that this celebration of today’s good decision making by CDOT and HPTE be powerful, peaceful and non-violent,” he wrote, guessing that he’d have about 100 supporters with him in the hearing room.

“My team will be asking any overly boisterous participants to be calm to allow the democratic process of the unelected HPTE board to proceed.”

Following the altercation, Hammer blamed the CDOT board for refusing her to speak on behalf of other individuals at their request.

“The HTPE board acted arbitrarily and unreasonably to provoke violence,” she said, stating that CDOT intentionally kept the rules for the meeting a secret until the last possible minute.

Beitel’s group, along with Danny Katz of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, were hoping to push the board to slow down and allow more time for the public to scrutinize the contract that is expected to be finalized by the end of the month.

Following the public comment portion of the meeting, the board unanimously approved three resolutions to move forward on the contract.

But the sideshow that took place at Wednesday’s meeting obscured what was an otherwise mixed, if not lively, debate.

“What this really does is it obscures the bigger merits of this project and what we heard from mayors and others who absolutely want this project,” said Amy Ford, CDOT’s spokesperson.

Mayors from Boulder and other communities along the Turnpike expressed their support for the plan to allow a consortium of six companies to help fund the bulk of the $425 million renovation project in exchange for allowing those groups to manage and profit from fees and tolls from new express lanes along U.S. 36.

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