Multiple outbursts, disruptions at Westminster public hearing on U.S. 36 toll lane, expansion

2nd public hearing planned in Louisville

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. - A public hearing was held Wednesday night on the plan to privatize new lanes on U.S. 36 between Westminster and Boulder.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has partnered with a private company to help build, then manage the new lanes as toll lanes. That private company will also handle maintenance, including snow removal, for the entire highway.

However, emails circulating this week are criticizing the Colorado Department of Transportation for pushing the deal through without a lot of transparency. CDOT argues that's untrue and says the state board, called High Performance Transportation Enterprise, signed off on the deal months ago.

7NEWS reporter Russell Haythorn reports the Westminster hearing had "multiple outbursts and disruptions," because many people are upset about CDOT signing a contract with a private company.  About 350 people were in attendance and many lined up to speak about the proposal.  CDOT asked for a one to two-minute time limit for each speaker.

CDOT said because of costs, the general strategy for expanding state highways from now on will include allowing private companies to foot the bill.

"It's outrageous,” said critic Ken Beitel, a clean energy analyst with the Drive Sunshine Institute. "It could be up to a $28 round-trip during rush hour."

CDOT spokesperson Amy Ford said a $28 round-trip is misleading. She said the contract with Plenary, the private company helping to construct and maintain the toll lanes, allows Plenary to charge a maximum of $14 one-way through the length of the 50-year contract. Ford said tolls will likely be around $5 one-way over the next few years. 

Two lanes of U.S. 36 in each direction will still be considered "general purpose" lanes and will remain free to all vehicles. Only the third lane under construction now will be tolled.

Beitel also criticizes CDOT for hiring an Australian company, Plenary, to build and manage the new toll lanes.

"CDOT is holding several secrets from the Colorado public,” he said. "Colorado lawmakers need to strip the state privatization board of its ability to sign this contract.”

"We - first and foremost - are not working a secret deal," Ford told 7NEWS.

Ford defends the bidding process used to choose Plenary and said private funds are the only way to expand.

“This ultimately is about money. And the fact is, CDOT simply does not have the funds," said Ford.

The deal also means CDOT road crews and snow plows will no longer maintain U.S. 36.

"You're going to actually see people other than the orange trucks that you're used to seeing out there,” said Ford. “The trucks will be private. The company actually provided a price that showed they could do the maintenance at less than what we typically pay right now to do it ourselves. And the contract is specific that they will be able to do so at a higher level of service than we are able to provide.”

Ford said the private company must also pay its workers an equivalent of what CDOT workers are paid.

Critics said that could cost Coloradans' jobs.

"Our state employees - not one of them - will lose their jobs," said Ford.

Critics also said CDOT is not being transparent about how much money Plenary will make off the toll lanes and what the profit sharing agreement looks like among CDOT and Plenary.

At least 14 state lawmakers have taken issue with the privatization of the toll lanes and the lengthy 50-year contract.

"Not being able to change things for 50 years is way out there," said state Sen. Matt Jones, Democrat for state senate District 17.

Jones said lawmakers were not involved in the contract negotiations.

CDOT is now planning to brief lawmakers on Wednesday about the contracts. Jones wants 60 days to review the contract before it’s finalized.

“And if they're good deals, they're good deals,” he said. "We just need to know what is going on. Otherwise, it's not good policy."

"Taxpayers should rightly be outraged," said Beitel. He said CDOT is also being secretive about how much Plenary will profit on the deal.

CDOT said toll lanes, which they call "managed lanes," are also planned on I-25 from Denver to Ft. Collins, I-70 through the metro area from I-25 to Tower Road, I-70 from Idaho Springs to Vail and C-470. 

“We have gone through an extensive process to find the best group and the best team who can really support us as we try to finish the U.S. 36 expansion project 20 years ahead of schedule," said Ford. Ford said without private funds, the U.S. 36 expansion would be years from completion if ever.

If you would like to weigh in on the plans, the next public hearing will be in Louisville:

Feb. 13, 6:30-7:30 p.m. at the Louisville Recreation Center Crown Room, 900 W. Via Appia, Louisville.

In addition to tolls, two person carpools will no longer be free in the HOV lanes. CDOT is transitioning to a system called HOV3, which only allows for free travel in the HOV lanes only if you have three people in the vehicle.

U.S. 36 Public Private Partnership FAQ (pdf file): http://ch7ne.ws/1g5hzaa