Road project transparency bill moves forward

Detractors say unintended consequences could slow down projects


A bill that aims to provide more transparency into the goings-on of public-private road contracts is advancing at the Capitol — a response to concerns over the handling of current U.S. 36 construction efforts.

Although the bill has bipartisan support so far, early detractors worry that the effort is much to do about nothing and that it might adversely impact future road contracts.

Senate Bill 197 increases public notice and legislative oversight of public-private partnerships of Colorado Department of Transportation road projects.

The bill requires a CDOT board to hold public meetings throughout the road project process and keep the Legislature and other local elected officials informed along the way.

CDOT would also be required to post the terms of the partnership agreement on its website.

The bill also states that any road project that exceeds 35 years must be approved by the Legislature.

“In general, people have a right to know what’s happening to their roads and they shouldn’t have surprises,” said Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, a bill sponsor. “This is especially true with public-private super projects that are expensive and very long term.”

Jones’ comments came during an April 24 Senate Transportation Committee hearing on the bill. The legislation passed the committee, following a 4-1 vote and was expected to receive a full vote in the Senate this week.

The bill comes on the heels of a passionate debate over the process behind the 50-year U.S. 36 road project, one that will widen the lanes of the highway and incorporate toll lanes.

Proponents of the $425 million U.S. 36 project say the contract works out well for taxpayers — some of whom tend to reject footing the bill for costly road projects — because the partnership will pay for badly needed construction, much of it coming from private funding.

But the project was the subject of some criticism from members of the public who felt that they were kept out of the loop on many of the contract details.

“A lot of people felt their voice was not heard,” Jones said.

Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs, a bill co-sponsor, said the Legislature has an obligation to provide oversight over these kinds of partnerships, in order to prevent U.S. 36-like controversy from happening in the future.

“I see this as a win-win situation,” Herpin said. “For the users of our roads and the builders of our roads.”

But not everyone agrees with Jones and Herpin.

Tony Milo of the Colorado Contractors Association said the public reaction to the U.S. 36 partnership was a part of a “growing pains” process that typically happens during these types of projects.

Milo also worried that the bill is a “knee-jerk reaction” to what happened with the U.S. 36 project, one that he believes provided the public with ample opportunities to make their voices heard.

“You can have all these public hearings and reports, but until a shovel is put into the ground, no one pays attention,” Milo said.

Sen. George Rivera, R-Pueblo, voted for the bill in committee, but expressed concerns that the Legislature might be “using a sledgehammer to hit a nail.”

“Do we have a problem that needs solved, here?” Rivera said.

Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, was the only member of the committee to vote against the bill. She expressed concern that not all interested parties were brought in on the bill-crafting process and said that the bill could have “unintended consequences,” when it comes to how future road projects are partnered.

Jahn also said that the Legislature needs to be fair to CDOT, especially since the department is following accountability rules that were put in place by lawmakers in 2009.

“One of the things that has bothered me since the whole U.S. 36 thing came about was that everyone was so willing to throw CDOT under the bus,” Jahn said. “And I think that’s very unfair because CDOT is only doing exactly what the legislature said they could do.”

Jones said the bill is not about making contractors’ lives more difficult.

“I’m not trying to kill these projects,” Jones said. “I’m just trying to make sure people know what’s going on and can have a valid voice in them.”