HUDSON: TOPIC IS EXACTING A TOLL ON EVERYONE
What (or who) is driving all the panic about alleged privatization of U.S. 36 in Boulder?
The Drive SunShine Institute convened an emergency public meeting on the afternoon of Jan. 31 at the Alfalfa’s community room in Boulder. The alleged public emergency was an imminent privatization of U.S. 36 by the Colorado Department of Transportation’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise, which is about to conclude a widely publicized two year solicitation process for a Public Private Partnership to extend RTD’s busway and high occupancy toll lanes from Interlocken on into Boulder. This contract will also lease existing HOV lanes on I-25 from downtown Denver that connect to U.S. 36. Plenary Roads Denver, a consortium of engineering and construction firms, has agreed to build this proposed extension and will then maintain the entire roadway in exchange for as many as 50 years of toll revenues. On short notice nearly a hundred taxpayers squeezed into the meeting room despite a steady snowfall outside. Those in attendance ranged from the merely curious to the obstreperously aggrieved.
The forum captured everything that is currently wrong with Colorado politics: well intentioned but profoundly ignorant opinion(s), misinformation and conscious misrepresentation, alarmist accusations and paranoid linkages, together with a total misapprehension of historic forces and the associated rationale for CDOT’s initiative — all bolstered with the self righteous suggestion that a conspiracy is afoot. Earlier in the day 14 legislators, led by state Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville, filed a companion letter requesting a public review of the terms and conditions of the pending agreement. If you weren’t paying attention, and very few do, to the regional transportation planning process during the past few years. the notion of a privately operated toll corridor between Denver and Boulder over the next half-century has a bizarre ring to it. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Who will pay for it? And, how much will it cost? (Rumors that tolls could approach $14 each way sounds a lot like Lexus Lane territory to most commuters.)
To understand what the HPTE is up to, we need to cast our gaze back to 1992 and voter approval of the TABOR amendment to the Colorado Constitution. At the behest of amendment author Douglas Bruce, voters awarded themselves the authority to approve all future tax increases. Placing the taxpayer’s foot on the brake of government growth and runaway spending sounded like a grand idea. The reality has proven a slow strangulation of public services, which pleases the anti-government crowd. Predictably, during the past 20 years legislators have devised legal mechanisms that permit them to skirt TABOR restrictions. Capital construction projects are now financed with Certificates of Participation, allowing governments to provide collateral for loans with 30 and 40-year lease commitments. The private owners of these newly minted public buildings harvest tidy profits in the process. The opportunity grants awarded to resident students attending our state colleges and universities enables the charade that general funds are not being appropriated to support higher education, thereby allowing many of them to function as TABOR enterprises.
If voters refuse to approve tax increases for highway and transit expansion, the Transportation Commission still carries a responsibility to meet the mobility demands of a growing population. Enter the HPTE and the PPP. Privately financed (at least in part), privately managed and privately maintained toll roads have emerged as the alternative of choice. In their favor is preservation of the user pays principle behind gas taxes. If you don’t use the lanes, you don’t pay the toll. But, as the state’s vehicle fleet has grown more efficient, inflation has eroded the purchasing power of fuel taxes that have remained frozen for two decades and politicians have lacked the spinal starch to ask voters for their help. Consequently our roadways are deteriorating and congestion has worsened. It was Democratic legislators who created the HPTE as a part of the FASTER legislation that increased vehicle registration fees in 2009 to fund a special road and bridge fund. This fee increase passed without a single Republican vote. When Republicans captured the House in 2010, they made several attempts to repeal the program.
The HPTE, however, did not escape the attention of policy wonks at the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative, business-friendly counterweight to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Steering public highway projects into PPPs appealed to the constructors and engineers across the country that had seen their revenues dry up following the economic contraction of the Great Recession. State budgets were no longer flush with highway projects. Republican Glen Vaad of Colorado served as chairman of ALEC’s transportation policy committee in 2011-12, which promoted model legislation for the creation of HPTE equivalents in other states. This placed Vaad in the peculiar position of having voted against a concept at home that he was now marketing to others. The past few years ALEC has also opposed renewable energy portfolio standards for public utilities. Thus, many environmental organizations, including the Drive SunShine Institute, have been less than thrilled with Governor Hickenlooper’s nomination of Vaad to a vacant seat at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
This tale brings us full circle back to Alfalfa’s. Ken Beitel of the SunShine Institute and organizer of last Friday’s forum kicked off with a belabored attempt to connect Vaad directly with the privatization of U. S. 36. Will Toor, the former mayor of Boulder and usually an all-purpose lefty, corrected the record pointing out that the HPTE was a Democratic initiative whether ALEC was willing to give them credit or not. He also expressed support for the construction of managed (tolled) lanes as preferable to general purpose lanes, which would rapidly fill with cars, emphasizing that local governments and elected officials along the U. S. 36 corridor were fully apprised of what was underway throughout the process. To their considerable credit, Mike Cheroutes of the HPTE and Amy Ford, communications director at CDOT, appeared and handled an hour’s worth of questions. Their argument that the specifics of the pending contract with Plenary Roads Denver could not be released until it was signed because of proprietary provisions didn’t sell well. They did distribute, however, a 60-page summary of the major provisions in the proposed agreement. This week CDOT agreed to offer a briefing to the legislature’s Transportation Review Committee. Without additional tax dollars, PPPs represent the future of highway and transit expansion in Colorado.
Advocacy organizations of both the right and left seek public support with noisy alarms about skullduggery in high places. It’s how they raise money and expand their influence. Only our elected officials are in a position to impartially educate voters about policy choices. In today’s political environment, we don’t see much of that. You only need to look at Florida to see what a tolled future looks like. You can still see the control tower at the Orlando Airport and the state has picked your pocket for 10 dollars or more. That may be what a majority of Colorado drivers prefer. Recent polls found that voters aren’t willing to raise their taxes for roads, but I doubt they understand what that refusal means. The U.S. 36 toll probably won’t be $14 each way to start, but even half of that, say $7, would run nearly $3,000 a year. How many carpenters, restaurant workers or state employees, for that matter, could afford that? (Just wait for the toll to Vail. You’ll love it!)
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and former executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority that studied the feasibility of a high-speed monorail between the Denver and Eagle County Airports along I-70. He can be reached at email@example.com.