Road transparency bill passes House

Measure in response to U.S. 36 construction contracts

By Vic Vela

Private-public road construction partnerships moved one step closer to having greater oversight with a bill that passed the House on May 5.

Senate Bill 197 is a response to grumblings over the U.S. 36 road construction process, perceived by some as being too secretive.

"This is what we heard loud and clear, that people wanted transparency in this project; that people wanted to be informed and involved and they wanted the legislature more involved in the process," said Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, a bill sponsor.

The bill increases public notice and legislative oversight of public-private partnerships of Colorado Department of Transportation road projects.

The legislation also 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.

Under the bill, any road project that exceeds 35 years must be approved by the Legislature. And the bill also requires that CDOT post the terms of the partnership agreement on its website.

The bill was spurred by fallout from the $425 million U.S. 36 road project, one that will widen the lanes of the highway and incorporate toll lanes.

Because it is a private-public partnership, much of the road funding will come from private financing. Supporters say that's important, given the lack of tax payer-backed road funding that is available for all the state's construction projects.

But Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, said that's also something that requires some watching.

"Out-of-state financiers are not accountable to public," Foote said. "As the Legislature, we are accountable to the public. They aren't."

There have been concerns that the public was kept out of the loop along the way. Many residents of communities that rely on U.S. 36 for transport said they didn't know many of the details of the 50-year project.

"I think that transparency is really important and I think when the voters in my district tell me they have a strong concern here, I need to follow the voters in my district," said Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, who supported the bill.

The bill passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, but a couple of Democrats joined all Republicans in voting against the bill in the House.

Critics of the legislation included the Colorado Contractors Association, a group that expressed concerns that the bill would have an adverse impact on road projects.

The group and the majority of General Assembly Republicans wondered if the legislation was a knee-jerk reaction to what happened during the U.S. 36 process, and that the response is disproportionate to the problem.

"Transparency, yes; absolute control, no," said Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction. "We already have many pieces of control within our state statutes."

The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. John Hickenlooper for his signature.