Lawmakers ask for details about US 36 contract

9:22 PM, Jan 31, 2014   |    comments
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DENVER - One day after the Colorado Department of Transportation received a critical letter from a group of Colorado state lawmakers on its handling of the U.S. 36 reconstruction project, CDOT released more details of its pending financial agreement with a private investment and construction consortium.

The details, put forward on CDOT's website, document the upcoming deal with Plenary Roads to finance more than 60 percent of the construction costs. In addition, CDOT confirmed it will not sign the financial deal with Plenary as soon as Monday. There had been speculation at the State Capitol the deal was going to be closed early next week.

In exchange for collecting tolls on U.S. 36's express tolling lanes, Plenary Roads will agree - under the terms of the pending contract -- to help finance the project and maintain the highway for the next 50 years. CDOT has already announced its plan to have an express tolling lane in each direction between Boulder and Denver. The lanes will offer an HOV option, but will only permit free travel for cars carrying three or more passengers starting in 2017.

Thursday, a group of 14 Democratic legislators criticized the upcoming deal with Plenary, calling it a "secret 50-year toll lane contract," as they asked CDOT to consider postponing any formal agreement for another 60 days. Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville) told 9Wants to Know he had repeatedly been denied an opportunity to review the contract between the state and Plenary.

"It's really bothersome," Sen. Jones told 9Wants to Know investigator Chris Vanderveen. "We want to know what's in the deal. A lot of people use [the highway] daily, and we want to be assured it's going to be a good deal for our constituents."

Friday, the head of the Colorado High Performance Enterprise told Vanderveen HTPE agreed to publicize an executive summary of the pending contract and denied CDOT or HTPE had worked on a "secret deal" with Plenary.

"It's not a matter of trying to hold back anything from the public," said Mike Cheroutes. "It's a matter of trying to get the transaction put to bed."

"We are not trying to hide anything here," he said.

Reached by phone on Friday, Sen. Jones told 9Wants to Know he remains unsatisfied with the disclosure of information. He said, in addition to having access to the full contract, he would still like to know more details on what Plenary will be allowed to charge for tolls, for example. CDOT has also denied a request from 9NEWS to look at the contract before it is signed.

The partnership between Plenary Roads and CDOT was made possible by 2009's FASTER legislation which passed through the state legislature with the blessing of Gov. Bill Ritter. The so-called public-private partnerships, or P3's, are becoming a popular option nationwide as cash-strapped states try to come up with new ways to finance major road construction projects.

CDOT has already said it intends to seriously consider P3's to finance future work on I-70 west of Denver and in Denver between Tower Road and I-25. While CDOT has already stated it doesn't intend to turn any existing highway or interstate into a 100 percent tolled road, it appears likely most if not all of the major projects will include express tolling lanes.

As for the U.S. 36 project between Denver and Boulder, Cheroutes told 9Wants to Know he remains confident that the 50 year contract will serve the state and the region well.

"Yes, I'm confident. I'm confident, and if we made a mistake we've got provisions in the contract that we can use to go in and correct that mistake," he said.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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