The Colorado Department of Transportation has found itself in quite a PR disaster due to its handling of the proposed private partnership for construction and maintenance of US 36 between Boulder and Denver. But the disaster may be more far reaching than it realizes.
Footage from the meeting that CDOT held in Westminster on Wednesday night looked more like mob fomenting a revolution than a review of a transportation proposal. The only thing missing were the pitchforks and torches.
At issue is the proposed contract that CDOT has negotiated with Plenary Roads, an international company, to build new lanes of US 36 and maintain the road in exchange for the authority to toll HOV lanes for the next 50 years.
The proposal wasn’t exactly the problem, although there are potentially many issues with the contract. The main problem was that CDOT did not make the contract public, nor opened up the conversation before making the significant move that may affect more than 100,000 drivers in Colorado a year.
I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so I cannot say with any level of accuracy if any laws were broken or even bent as CDOT negotiated a deal that even lawmakers were clueless about.
However, I believe the bigger issue is how it was presented and how that botched presentation will impact future public private partnerships or P3s. In fact, this one was presented, or I guess not presented, so poorly that most citizens will walk away from this with a very leery attitude toward any P3s, even if they will bring possible great solutions.
The deeper problem with how this proposal has been presented is not just the secrecy, but the not so subtle threat to justify the action. It may very well be a better idea to finish the road in two years, rather than 20 years under the current budgeting scenario, but setting up that threat is a dangerous red herring.
Yes, leasing the toll lanes for fifty years will ensure speedy development, but saying that the alternative was to wait for 20 years is wholly inaccurate.
If a proper and open campaign had been run about the situation, perhaps a better public funding idea could have been hatched. Just because voters have declined previous funding efforts before doesn’t mean the whole idea is flawed.
P3s should not be a proverbial gun to the public’s head as the only option to a 20 year sentence to the horse and buggy days. If that becomes the only justification for P3s, the public will begin to chafe at the very idea of P3s.
Many P3s can be a beneficial option for communities and the state of Colorado, especially considering the various financial issues we face. But if more are handled the way CDOT handled this one, it will only be a matter of time until the citizens indeed revolt over the very idea and humbly accept a future relegated to horse and buggies.
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– Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here usually every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti is also the host and producer of the Emmy award winning Colorado Inside Out on Colorado Public Television.