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Vehicles travel north from San Diego to Los Angeles along Interstate Highway 5 in Calif., Dec. 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Mike Blake) Vehicles travel north from San Diego to Los Angeles along Interstate Highway 5 in Calif., Dec. 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)  

Opponents to sue over secret Colorado highway privatization scheme

Opponents of a secret deal to privatize the yet unbuilt toll lanes on one of Colorado’s busiest highways plan to file a lawsuit in an effort to scuttle the contract, which is expected to be finalized by the end of the month.

The suit, which will be filed this week by the Drive SunShine Institute (DTI) in Boulder, will claim that an environmental assessment for the project was flawed, according to the Boulder Daily Camera. That could invalidate the project from receiving federal transportation loans and bring construction on the highway to a grinding halt.

The suit is in response to a secret deal the Colorado Department of Transportation is negotiating with Plenary Roads, an Australia-based consortium of businesses, to pay to widen U.S. Highway 36 connecting Boulder and Denver. In exchange, the consortium will be allowed to keep toll fees for 50 years.

CDOT managers have said the deal is necessary to pay for the improvements to the road, but the agency angered practically everyone by negotiating it in secret. They’ve said it was necessary because the reported 600-page contract contains proprietary information that can’t be released to the public. Not even state lawmakers are aware of the fine print, even though more than a dozen have formally requested to take 60 days to review the contract.

Plenary Road is already doing some of the work. The lawsuit would prevent the second phase from going forward, but a CDOT spokeswoman told the Camera that legal action wouldn’t “necessarily stop the financial close.”

The lawsuit will coincide with a planned protest of the secret deal scheduled for Wednesday outside a CDOT meeting where the final details will be discussed, according to the Camera.

“CDOT is lying when they say privatization of Colorado highways is the only choice,” DTI clean energy analyst Ken Beitel said in a press release. “There are many public finance options available especially with surging marijuana sales tax revenue. Surveys show a vast preference to increasing fuel taxes versus privatizing and tolling Colorado highways.”

DTI also claims that Plenary Roads and Goldman Sachs plan to sell “toll bonds” on Wall Street based on the deal and that drivers using the high-speed toll roads will pay $10 for a round trip between Denver and Boulder. The institute also said the round-trip toll rates will rise to $28 over time.

About 100,000 cars use U.S. 36 every day, according to KUNC radio.

In the press release Beitel said that lawmakers who sit by and allow the deal to go through will pay a political price.

“We are keeping a list,” he said. “State representatives that allow CDOT to sign the U.S. 36 toll bond contract are going to be run out of office by angry voters this fall. I promise you that. However, elected officials like [Democratic state] Sen. Matt Jones and his colleagues who stand up for the public interest and strip CDOT of its ability to sign the 50 year contract are going to be public heroes.”

The Drive SunShine Institute advocates for investment in renewable energy.

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