A necessary tool to use

Bill Christopher
Posted

How about a round of applause for the High Performance Transportation Enterprise (HPTE) Board and the CDOT Commission for “keeping their eye on the ball” and moving forward on the second segment of U.S. 36 Highway widening improvements.

While there has been considerable debate, threats and anger over the 50-year contract with a private consortium to accomplish the last phase of the $425.0 Million project, the project needs to go forward.

Furthermore, I would bet that the CDOT Commissioners and staff have learned a valuable lesson in interjecting public review/comment on future public/private partnership (PPP) project contracts early in the process. Commissioner Heather Berry hit the nail on the head — “I’m requesting that we take the lessons learned in this process and translate it to other projects that will be moved forward.”

RTD’S FASTRACKS PROMISE

The widening of U.S. 36 was a key component of the RTD FasTracks package to include HOV/HOT lanes for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) which voters approved in 2004. BRT service between Boulder and Federal Boulevard will improve commute times for RTD bus riders and motorists.

Without the PPP approach, it is unclear just when the final segment of road work could be completed. Ask yourself how effective the widened highway and HOV/HOT lanes would be if they stopped at the northwest side of Broomfield. There would be quite a “funneling” effect and traffic congestion if the second segment is not a reality and this RTD commitment would not be fulfilled.

A NEW TOOL IN THE TOOL KIT

With the approval of the contracts with Plenary Roads Denver, an international consortium of six different companies, CDOT has launched “a new tool in the tool kit” to design, build, finance and maintain highway projects. They join RTD in looking to the private sector to carry out large, expensive public infrastructure projects which otherwise would not be built and operated for a major span of time i.e., 20 years.

Until Congress and/or the Colorado Legislature come up with new or increased revenue streams i.e., taxes or fees, it is not feasible to achieve major highway expansion projects in Colorado. CDOT is struggling as it is to meet maintenance and repair costs throughout the state on EXISTING roads and bridges. We as a state have fallen way behind in achieving the needed expansion of our highway system while increased population has put a strain on existing capacity.

TRADE-OFFS TO ACCELERATE CONSTRUCTION

PPP will only work where user fees, aka tolls, can be imposed. A new revenue stream has to be created to fund the debt on the front-end capital costs as well as the ongoing operating costs to maintain the new road. That is where the “rub” comes into play. While I am not in favor of either a 50-year contract or requiring HOV-3 (3 people in the vehicle in the HOV/HOT lane to avoid the toll) versus the current HOV-2, the people in the know say that these are necessary requirements to make the private deal “pencil out.”

Since I am not privy to the detailed terms of the contract or the financial modeling used, I will assume they know what they are talking about. All in all, we the motoring public need U.S. 36 widened including HOV/HOT lanes now!!