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Denver – Despite calls from CoPIRG and others for a public input period before approving a 50-year agreement with a private company to build and manage parts of US36, the Board of the High-Performance Transportation Enterprise (HPTE) approved the deal at their regularly scheduled meeting today. The approval comes at a time when public confusion remains high about a deal that would have Plenary Roads Denver build and maintain parts of US36 that connect Boulder to Denver and manage tolls on two new lanes extending from Boulder to Denver.
"There needs to be a clear public comment period and process between the release of the full details and the signing of a 50-year agreement with a private company to manage any road, including US36,” said Danny Katz, Director of CoPIRG, who called for the process to slow down at the HPTE Board meeting. “This was the yes-or-no moment and the public needs a voice in that.”
Even before the HPTE approved this public-private partnership with Plenary, construction was well under way to rebuild US36 between Pecos St and 88th St in Louisville. Known as “Phase 1,” this $320 million project funded by public dollars would rebuild and widen the free lanes currently in use and add an additional lane in each direction to be used by buses and HOV vehicles for free. Single occupancy vehicles could use the lanes if they paid a fluctuating toll designed to ensure the new lanes maintained speeds of 50 or 55 mph. It’s scheduled to be completed by 2015.
The agreement approved by HPTE today, commits Plenary to rebuild and widen the free lanes from 88th St in Louisville to Table Mesa/Foothills in Boulder and build an additional lane in each direction that would operate like Phase 1 – free for buses and HOV and tolls for other vehicles managed to keep speeds moving in the new lanes. In addition, Plenary would manage existing toll lanes on I-25 and take on some of the debt of Phase 1. While the transportation part of this project has been discussed for years, private involvement formally began when the HPTE released Requests for Qualifications in 2012. The full agreement was posted last Friday afternoon.
“Public-private partnerships need to be approached with caution, especially when the public interest is pitted against financial incentives,” said Katz. “In this case, the details really matter because the initial financial incentive of high toll revenue could come in conflict with the goals of the project such as prioritizing buses and encouraging carpooling. The agreement is in the 1,000 page range so we’re still reviewing it. Thankfully there are protections for some of our worst fears but we still have questions and there was not enough time to fully review it and understand the details before it was approved. That’s disappointing and can’t happen again.”
All last week, a number of transportation officials and advocates for the deal expressed frustration that the public did not take more advantage of public comment opportunities over the last couple of years. They expressed confidence that because of those opportunities and the involvement of elected officials and business leaders along the US36 corridor, that public involvement was adequate.
“Confusion is still high about this project and the last week has shown many people want a chance to understand it better and weigh in before it’s a done deal. The HPTE missed an opportunity to assuage concerns and increase understanding by setting aside more time for that,” said Katz. “It’s hard to build public confidence in a deal if you are saying it has to get done and it has to get done without further public input at the moment the public seems most interested in providing input.”
CoPIRG still plans to release an analysis of the full agreement by the end of the week to help educate the public about what the final deal means for the public interest. In addition, CoPIRG is calling on elected leaders to immediately move forward and enshrine a set of policies to ensure any future private deals protect the public interest.
“It seems clear that action is needed,” concluded Katz.
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