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'Bridge to Nowhere:' Internal Jeffco emails admit 'expensive, unnecessary' spending

11:35 PM, Nov 9, 2011   |    comments
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Internal emails obtained by 9Wants to Know using Colorado Open Records Act show county officials struggling to justify the pedestrian bridge, completed in the spring of 2011 using a combination of federal and local tax dollars.

The bridge spanning Wadsworth just north of Bowles, connects two aging shopping malls, Southwest Plaza and Bowles Crossing. Some citizens, including resident Gary Michelson, have dubbed it: "The Bridge To, And From, Nowhere."

When Michelson wrote to county leaders calling the bridge a "terrible waste of funds," he received a stock answer from project engineer Brad Bauer that was similar to the two-page defense of the project sent to other concerned citizens. In one such response, Bauer writes the bridge will be a "lasting asset" that will "significantly improve the pedestrian safety at the intersection."

That is not what the county's point-man on the project was saying behind the scenes.

After an email exchange with Michelson, Bauer emailed his supervisor on June 22 saying he was "having a hard time coming up with any good response," adding that he could agree with Michelson's points about "the bridge being an expensive unnecessary expense."

"Unfortunately, there is nothing to say to this gentleman," Transportation and Engineering Director Kevin French responded. "And there really isn't any point in carrying on a conversation with him."

Michelson, upon learning of the county's private acknowledgements, says he was bothered by their lack of transparency.

"It's my money they're spending," Michelson said. "I have every right to know, they have every obligation to tell me honestly, what they're doing."

Other Jefferson County residents got the same treatment.

Discussing a citizen who wrote to say the bridge "is useless spending that citizens, including citizens of Jefferson County are fed up with," Bauer told his superiors he was having trouble responding because, "I honestly can agree with her."

After reading the internal emails, 9Wants to Know Investigator Kyle Clark asked French if the bridge was a wise use of taxpayers' money.

"That's an interesting question," French replied.

Asked why the county was saying one thing to taxpayers publicly and another thing privately, French said, "I'm not sure I have a good answer for that question."

Pressed as to whether he agreed with the project engineer's assessment of the bridge as expensive and unnecessary, French said, "It would be difficult to justify the project given our current financial situation."

Yet, the county continued to justify the project to concerned citizens with no such caveat.

"Well," French said with a nervous laugh, "It's the best we have."

Michelson was unimpressed.

"There should be an investigation and employees held accountable and elected officials held accountable as well," Michelson said.

The idea of a pedestrian bridge appears to have been hatched almost a decade ago during discussion on how to improve mobility and safety at the Wadsworth and Bowles intersection. The project was approved by the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners in segments, with a final vote on the design contract for the pedestrian bridge in August 2009.

The entire project, which involved widening Wadsworth by one lane, cost $8.7 million including the pedestrian bridge.

French says the bridge was recommended by a steering committee. The committee consisted of area residents, developers and engineers from Muller Engineering.

Jefferson County records indicate Muller was awarded more than $1.6 million in contracts to work on the entire $8.7 million intersection redesign project. (In an email, a Jefferson County spokeswoman said a significant amount of the work on two Muller contracts worth about $603,000 was done by Jacobs Engineering, a subconsultant.)

As county engineers struggled to come up with a defense of the project, French suggested to Bauer that they reach out to Muller.

"What was Mullers' response when you asked for help?" French wrote on June 23. "After milking this project for several hundred thousand dollars they should be helping you out with this."

In a written statement, Muller President Robert Carlson said it was not the engineering firm's position to be an advocate for the bridge and pushed back strongly against claims that Muller "milked" the project for money.

"Muller vigorously refutes any claims that it went beyond its engineering role related to the viability of the bridge project," the statement reads in part. "In fact, a letter of recommendation sent to Muller by Jefferson County Highway and Transportation specifically acknowledged Muller, 'provides excellent value for the fees charged and does not perform unsolicited extra services, nor do they bill for hours on the project that were not requested or productive.' The letter also states, 'Muller has shown an ability to take on a variety of projects in a very responsive and professional manner.'"

Jefferson County prominently highlighted a Muller study in its written defense of the project, citing the study's projection of 100 pedestrians and bicyclists using the bridge each day. The county did not tell taxpayers that projection was for the year 2030.

In light of that, asked if the pedestrian bridge was a necessary expense, French sat silently for several seconds.

"There are other ways we could have incrementally increased safety at the intersection without a bridge," French said. "But without a doubt, crossing people over a bridge above traffic moving 45 to 50 miles per hour is the safest way to get them from one side of Wadsworth to the other."

In fact, the Muller study looked at eight previous years of traffic data and counted the number of pedestrian accidents at Wadsworth and Bowles: zero.

On Thursday night, 9Wants to Know looks at emails that suggest the true reason why the bridge was built and commissioners talk about if it was worth the $3 million price tag.

9NEWS learned about this story through a news tip. If you have other examples of government waste, or have questions or comments, please email Kyle Clark at kyle.clark@9news.com.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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