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Colorado's controversial plunge into public-private partnerships to oversee and collect tolls from local highways comes as credit agencies and other states are struggling with the arrangement, mostly because America's driving boom could be over.
"The constant increase we saw in driving up until 2005 shows no sign of returning," said Danny Katz, director for the Colorado chapter of the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which released a study last year saying people ages 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001.
The apparent end of what that study calls the "driving boom" is causing problems for tolling projects from California to Texas, where reality is failing to match projections of growth in traffic and revenue. Some states, including Illinois and Indiana, are offering set payments to supplement toll projects.
Colorado officials insist they've built in safeguards for taxpayers in case traffic revenue doesn't meet expectations.
The state's recent 50-year agreement with Plenary Roads Denver — a six-company consortium — for the maintenance and tolling of U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder includes no contractual guarantee for a minimum level of revenue, say officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
That means if toll revenue on the 21-mile stretch of U.S. 36 is lower than expected, the state carries no liability while Plenary Roads Denver will still be responsible for paying off loans and operating and maintaining the highway for 50 years.
That same deal is likely to be struck as Colorado looks to toll portions of Interstate 70 in east Denver and in the mountains, as well as C-470.
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