DENVER — Just months after loud citizen protests that culminated in three vocal critics physically removed from a public hearing about the Colorado Department of Transit’s 50-year tollway contract with private firm Plenary Roads, Governor John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill that would have ensured greater transparency in any future public-private road building contract negotiations.
The bill, SB14-197, arose out of bitter controversy surrounding the CDOT-Plenary contract to expand U.S. 36 between Broomfield and Boulder — a deal which granted Plenary a 50-year toll contract on the road in exchange for a $20 million investment in the nearly $500 million project. If signed, the bill would have required lawmakers to approve any public-private partnerships that include non-compete contracts or are for terms longer than 35 years.
The lawmakers behind the bill said the public transparency set forth in the bill was a major priority for constituents and were let down by the veto.
“It’s disappointing when we seemingly trust Wall Street and bankers more than the people and those they elect to represent them to protect taxpayer dollars,” said the measure’s sponsor, Louisville Democratic Senator Matt Jones, adding that he fully intends to try again with a modified bill next session.
Hickenlooper said that, while he supported the transparency measures, he was concerned that legislative oversight would have a “chilling effect” on the private business buy-in that makes these kind of projects possible.
Ken Beitel of the Drive Sunshine Institute, a nonprofit that works with businesses to invest in renewable energy, did not buy that explanation.
“It’s disingenuous that Governor Hickenlooper talks about the large amount of private-sector investment, when the majority of the money for [these] projects is provided by the taxpayers, while the profits of the tolls go to private companies,” he said. He added that Plenary stands to make $1 billion in toll revenue over the course of the contract and that, in some cases, taxpayers might even have to refund the company for revenue losses due to weather or disaster-related road closures.
Hickenlooper did issue an executive order focused on implementing the transparency requirements in the vetoed bill, such as holding at least three public meetings in the area and notifying the public if a contract would change the rules around high-occupency lanes, as the U.S. 36 deal does, bumping the required carpool count from two to three people.
The Governor also called for the executive and legislative branches to co-develop a “Center of Excellence” to promote best practices around such deals, including a focus on transparency.
“We stand ready to work with you toward the goal of finding a solution that will maximize the potential usefulness of P3s, while ensuring transparency and openness,” Hickenlooper wrote in the order, which you can read here.
[Photo of double lights before the Flatirons by Let Ideas Compete via Flickr]