The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments is tired of being pushed around, and it's not going to take it anymore.
The council, which is supposed to be in charge of regional transportation planning in the Pikes Peak area, has long quietly fretted that the Colorado Department of Transportation is running roughshod over its planning efforts. Now it has taken its complaints to the Federal Highway Administration, accusing the state transportation department of violating federal rules that require cooperation between state and local planning agencies.
"We're rebelling," said PPACG director Fred Van Antwerp, who raised the concerns in a document submitted to the federal government last month. "We're saying, 'Look, we can't do the job we're supposed to do.'"
State transportation director Tom Norton said he was "a little taken aback" by the regional council's approach, but pledged to address the concerns. "Obviously, we've got to increase communication," Norton said.
How the money is spent
What's at stake are tens of millions of dollars for projects such as improving Interstate 25 through Colorado Springs, for extending Powers Boulevard, or any other project that may receive federal highway funds.
Antwerp notes that when the Federal Highway Administration disburses highway funds to the state of Colorado, it requires that the state work with local Metropolitan Planning Organizations to decide how the money should be spent.
Locally, the metropolitan planning organization is the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, representing El Paso and Teller counties, and the cities of Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Monument, Fountain, Palmer Lake, Woodland Park and Green Mountain Falls.
In reality, CDOT has been dictating to the regional council for many years, Van Antwerp says. The department has rejected or unilaterally altered local funding estimates for projects, and even changed the scope of local projects without communicating with the council, he maintains. Sometimes, when CDOT has disagreed with local project funding estimates, it has simply refused to include those projects in statewide transportation plans, he complains.
While the regional council's decision-making process includes public input through open meetings and hearings, CDOT's process typically does not, Van Antwerp says.
Colorado Springs City Councilman Richard Skorman, a vice chairman of the regional council, says he was upset that the I-25 and Powers Boulevard improvements were recently cut from CDOT's list of top-priority projects due to funding shortfalls. CDOT, he says, unilaterally decided to spend available funds on projects that already were under contract. The Springs projects were not yet under contract, because environmental assessments had yet to be completed.
"We were shorted money again for I-25 and Powers," Skorman said. "That didn't feel fair to us."
Long been a concern
Skorman says he's long been concerned that the Pikes Peak area isn't getting its fair share of statewide transportation funds. "We've been shorted, and I think it's one of the reasons we're now one of the most congested cities of our size in the country."
Norton, the state transportation director, says he disagrees with the council's accusations. However, he agrees there may have been communication problems. "CDOT needs to work harder and do a better job in communicating," Norton said.
Norton says he was surprised by the regional council's recent appeal to the federal government, because he had recently discussed the concerns with council representatives and agreed to hold a series of joint "workshops" with the council to improve communication and cooperation.
The council's subsequent appeal to the feds seems to go against the spirit of the previous agreement, Norton suggests.
"With that kind of attitude and approach, it makes it a little difficult," Norton said.
-- Terje Langeland