Coloradans fuming over secret deal to privatize highway toll lanes

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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The Colorado Department of Transportation is under fire by both citizens and lawmakers for working a secret deal to privatize future toll lanes on one of Colorado’s busiest highways.

Department officials say the arrangement with Plenary Roads, an Australian-based business consortium, is secret and the details won’t be publicly disclosed until it’s finalized.

The deal involves allowing the private entity to pay the cost of widening U.S. Highway 36 between Boulder and Denver and collect revenue from new toll lanes for 50 years. Officials say the state can barely maintain the busy highway as is, and that partnerships with private entities are necessary.

“In order to do projects like this, we have to find innovative ways of financing them,” state Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp told Denver’s 9News. “The public-private projects are one of the ways to do that.”

She added, however, that she was frustrated CDOT hasn’t responded to a request by 14 state lawmakers to review the contract.

The public isn’t very pleased about it, however, as 9News reported that the first public meeting on Wednesday — which CDOT managers admitted should have been initiated long ago — turned heated. The Daily Camera reported that the meeting “devolved into periodic bouts of jeering and heckling” by taxpayers who were incensed that they weren’t involved in the process of privatizing a main highway.

“I don’t want my tax money and corporate tax dollars going back to Australia for our roads, our infrastructure that we’ve sold out,” one woman said during the meeting.

But the first phase of the contract, which deals with the highway build-out, has already been signed. No elected state official has seen the full 600-page contract, only a summary. The deal is due to be finalized in the coming days. Transportation officials say it contains proprietary information about Plenary Roads and can’t be disclosed until its official.

A CDOT spokeswoman insisted it was a good deal for Colorado, considering that traffic congestion on U.S. 36 is projected to become “unbearable” without expensive infrastructure upgrades.

“What is the best deal for Colorado and what is the right approach to deliver a project?” spokeswoman Amy Ford is quoted as saying in the Daily Camera. “[This] allowed us to accelerate this project by 20 years.”

CDOT officials are meeting with state legislators Thursday, where they will be pressured to release the contract details.

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Greg Campbell