The governor's road to re-election is about more than just fixing highways

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens wants voters to approve a $2.3 billion initiative that he promises will speed up 28 highway projects across a state gripped in white-knuckle traffic congestion.But critics note that while TRANS (short for Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes) would widen Colorado's highways to 12 lanes or more in some places (and to eight on I-25 through Colorado Springs), the measure does nothing to address less-pollution-producing alternatives, including light rail, buses or high-speed passenger trains.

And, cynics say, if passed, the governor's TRANS proposal -- called Referendum A on the November ballot -- will serve a more important function than road improvement for Owens: It will help the governor get re-elected to a second term in office.

That's because a good chunk of that $2.3 billion, nearly $600 million, has been earmarked to speed up construction to widen the heavily congested southeast Denver corridor of Interstate 25 running from Lincoln Avenue through the Denver Tech Center north to Broadway.

Much of that project, which carries thousands of commuters -- and suburban Denver swing voters -- every day, is scheduled under TRANS to be completed by 2002 -- enough time for Republican strategists to make Owens a hero of transit.

The 2002 date is important, because it's the same year that Owens -- the first Republican in 24 years to be elected to run the state -- is up for re-election. Under TRANS, the whole southeast corridor would be finished in 2008, a full decade before its currently scheduled completion date of 2018.

The pet southeast corridor is also the route that Owens reportedly travels from his Aurora home to the state Capitol every day. (Two weeks ago, The Denver Post reported that Owens and his family prefer their Aurora tract home to the just-renovated historic Governors Mansion, which is less than a mile from his office at the state Capitol.)

By contrast, Colorado Springs -- like much of the state -- would not immediately benefit from highway projects being completed in its own back yard. The three Springs projects currently listed for TRANS funds wouldn't be completed for eight to 18 more years.

The political stakes are so high that Owens has given his press secretary Dick Wadhams a leave of absence to lead efforts to pass TRANS, with hefty contributions from Republican-minded business and development groups who want it passed. Wadhams, who is widely credited for getting his boss, as well as U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, elected to office -- is getting paid $10,000 a month for his efforts.

Wadhams insists that the TRANS measure will benefit everyone in Colorado. And, he defended the decision to focus the bulk of the money on Denver's southeast corridor.

"It's the most congested piece of highway in the most populous piece of the state," he said. "The fact is, there won't be a region of the state that won't benefit from TRANS."

$2.3 billion in debt

If passed, TRANS would place the state for the first time in its 123-year history in a position of being $2.3 billion -- and as much as $2.4 billion -- in debt. Historically, the state has mandated a pay-as-you-go approach for its capital-improvement and infrastructure projects.

Owens initially tried to grease the measure through the Republican-led Legislature this year, without a vote of the people. But four Democratic senators cried foul, and the Colorado Supreme Court eventually ordered TRANS to be placed before the voters.

If it passes, Colorado would, in effect, be borrowing $1.7 billion against anticipated federal gas taxes it expects to receive well into the 21st century. In turn, the state would repay its loan, carried by as yet undetermined investment firms, at about a 5 percent interest rate.

Translated, the state would pay out $600 million in interest, for a final price tag of between $2.3 billion and $2.4 billion.

Concrete and labor shortages -- driven in part by the fact that Utah has pulled much of the region's available resources to get ready for the 2002 Winter Olympic in Salt Lake City -- have driven highway construction costs in Colorado through the roof in recent years.

Construction costs are currently running at a 9 percent interest rate. It is unclear whether the construction costs will continue to increase at its high interest rates. But Wadhams said that under TRANS, the state would save money over the long run, because the state would be borrowing at an anticipated 5 percent inflation, rather than paying the currently inflated costs.

The TRANS proposal is of such momentous political importance for Owens that, for the moment, it has turned the long-hostile opponent of light rail into one of its most ardent fans.

Two years ago, Owens denounced an extensive light-rail system for the Denver Metro area -- placed on the ballot by the Regional Transportation District there. Publicly flogged by conservative opponents, the measure failed.

Now, however, Owens has joined with Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, a Democrat, to eagerly support another Denver ballot measure to build a light-rail line along the southeast corridor. The light-rail line would run along the same route that would get the bulk of the TRANS money, and business interests along the route have overwhelmingly favored the plan.

Wadhams even calls Owens the hero of light rail because of his stance.

"[The governor] is reviving the credibility of mass transit by getting [RTD] to focus on one specific line," Wadhams said. "If it can survive, then we can try it somewhere else -- even Colorado Springs."

Colorado Springs shorted

By contrast, Colorado Springs would benefit from the plan, but not until well into the 21st century. TRANS would only shave one to three years off the completion dates of projects like the Powers extension and Interstate 25 -- which won't be finished until about 2012.

Currently, almost 500,000 people call El Paso County home. According to the Colorado Division of Government, that number is projected to reach almost 634,500 by 2015.

Making the matter more complicated, money earmarked for specific highway projects has continued to shift over recent months, confusing even the experts at City Hall.

"I don't think anybody in the city government has a 100 percent, clear understanding of the impact on our projects and what would get done under TRANS," said Dave Zelenok, the city's transit director.

In June, the city was notified that money the Colorado Department of Transportation had promised for key highway projects -- most notably the Powers Boulevard extension project connecting the road to Interstate 25 at either end -- was going to be delayed. The unexpected news came just two months after voters here passed a $104 million Springs Comprehensive Infrastructure Proposal amid promises that the city would complete certain capital-improvement projects, including the Powers extension.

In effect, the shift in the timetable would have left Powers essentially a dead-end street.

In a stern June 11 letter to Owens, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace warned the governor of the ramifications of delaying key highway projects, claiming such delays would have "a devestating impact on Colorado Springs."

"I understand and well appreciate the need for voter approval of your TRANS proposal this November," Makepeace wrote. "However, to execute major changes in our construction programs, without consultation with the cities and regional governments impacted, would be unconscionable.

"Doing so, I fear, may doom any chances of the referendum passing and damage everyone's credibility in the process."

A week later, the state transportation commission, the board which oversees the Colorado Department of Transportation, restored funding to the three targeted projects -- the Woodmen Road interchange and numerous Interstate 25 projects including widening, from Monument to Colorado Springs.

The state's transportation commission chairman, Dan Stuart, who is from Colorado Springs, is widely credited with restoring the funding. An avid supporter of the TRANS proposal, Stuart acknowledges that projects like the Powers connection and the Woodmen Road interchange will not be completed for more than a decade. But, he said, Colorado Springs will see more immediate results, because the state will begin working on them earlier than previously anticipated.

"Where Colorado Springs really benefits is in congestion mitigation," he said. "The congestion can be addressed in a much better way."

There are no guarantees that today's timelines are etched in stone, however. After all, Colorado Springs' highway projects won't be completed until 2018 -- about the time your infant is getting ready to graduate from high school.

Political road rage

There's no question that Colorado's roads are in horrible shape, and politics have long plagued efforts to secure the money to pay for highway improvements.

Owens' predecessor, Democratic Gov. Roy Romer, attempted for years to secure additional state highway funding with gas-, income- and sales-tax proposals, but without much cooperation from a GOP-controlled Legislature.

In 1987, state lawmakers killed a program that helped fund highways with sales-tax proceeds. Ironically, Owens, who was a state representative at the time, voted in favor of stripping away the highway money.

The sales-tax funds were reinstated two years ago after a massive effort led by state Sen. Ray Powers, a Republican from El Paso County. Powers was widely lauded by politicians from both sides of the aisle for his efforts to reinstate the transportation funding.

Also two years ago, Colorado voters rejected a proposal to allow the state to use surplus tax dollars for road improvements. Politicians like Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley favors reintroducing that effort, rather than incurring the heavy debt that would result if TRANS passes.

Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck favors TRANS, he said, not for his own interests or those of the Republican Party to which he belongs, but for the state of Colorado and its future generations.

Schuck, who most recently took aim at the Colorado Springs City Council for killing a plan to study building a major east-west arterial through the north-central Constitution Avenue neighborhood, bemoaned the lack of leaders who have a long-range vision to preserve Colorado.

"We have not perpetuated the culture of accountability and responsibility we inherited from our predecessors who built water systems and museums and parks," Schuck said. "We only build what we want for ourselves, with no sense of obligation for our successors.

"We see politically-motivated decisions being made instead of statesmanlike leadership."

Public debt for political payoff

TRANS is being backed by heavy-hitting Republicans (including Schuck and Don Bain, the former state GOP chairman who now heads the political action group working to get it passed).

And less than five weeks before the Nov. 2 election, no group has organized in opposition to the measure.

Opposition to the massive debt that the state would be in if TRANS passes would ordinarily come from fiscal conservatives, of which Colorado boasts many. But the only vocal opponent has been Colorado Springs anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, who unsuccessfully sued Owens over the governor's activism in getting it passed. Bruce has argued that the TRANS debt would place a dangerous burden on future generations, and that the measure violates the Colorado Constitution.

Despite the lack of immediacy for Colorado Springs projects, this week numerous El Paso County Republican heavy hitters gathered to flank the governor as Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace endorsed TRANS. The press conference, sponsored by the local Housing and Building Association (developers), the Chamber of Commerce and the realtors' association, also drew Sheriff John Anderson, state Rep. Ron May and various local Republican officials

Feeley believes that conservative GOP groups and individuals -- including the Western Slope's Club 20 and Jon Caldera of the conservative, Golden-based Independence Institute think tank -- are, in essence, taking a deep swallow and agreeing to go along with TRANS for one reason.

"The Republicans are so deliriously happy they've recaptured the governorship they want [Owens] to succeed," said Feeley, a Democrat who lost a primary bid for governor last year.

"[Owens] is getting a pass on this [TRANS] measure by a lot of fiscally conservative Republicans."

Specifically, Club 20 has endorsed TRANS, even though only one of the 28 highway projects will benefit the Western Slope. Under the current plan, Highway 50 connecting Gunnison to Montrose would receive $72 million of the $2.3 billion package, but the project will not be completed until 2008.

Most moderates and liberals have also remained silent over TRANS, as have environmental groups that like to tout the importance of typically alternative forms of transportation, like light rail or train service. While TRANS speeds up highway widening projects, it does not incorporate other transportation alternatives

The Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a left-leaning statewide environmental and government watchdog group, is "neutral" at this point on the governor's proposal, said CoPIRG's Transportation Program Director Kelly Wark.

"Right now, we don't have a position," she said.

Feeley believes there's a reason why fiscal conservatives and liberals alike are loath to join Bruce's latest crusade.

"No one wants to align themselves with Doug Bruce, because he's such a butthead," he said.

The old cowboy

Just as often, Feeley runs into people who tell him they are apt to vote for the measure, because Colorado's roads are just in such bad shape. "And there is some merit to that particular argument," he said.

For his part, transportation commission Chairman Stuart supports "broadening" transportation alternatives to incorporate bicycles, high-occupancy-vehicle highway lanes, light rail and passenger trains.

"But there are still many people who believe that the answer to congestion is easy -- and that is, 'Get my neighbor to ride the bus,' " he said. "What people are saying is, 'Change people's habits, but I'm not going to change mine.' "

Colorado Springs developer Schuck believes light-rail and train service is a romantic enough theory, but an unlikely solution when applied to real life. He likens the idea that Coloradans would be willing to give up their cars to take buses or light rail to the Old West. "I don't see Coloradans willing to give up their horses."

"That is the modern-day version of asking an old cowboy to take the stagecoach," Schuck said. "Nobody came to Colorado to take trains and buses."

Such notions -- including the idea that light-rail and high-speed trains only work in East Coast cities -- make CoPIRG's Wark laugh out loud.

"Coloradans would like to save time and money and not be in traffic," she said.

CoPIRG believes that physically widening the highways is not the only plan that could alleviate traffic woes.

The organization supports the southeast corridor light-rail plan that is on Denver's ballot in November and is also closely tracking several other projects currently under consideration. Wark cited regional busing plans being proposed in Summit County and the Roaring Fork Valley near Aspen, as well as a proposed light-rail line connecting Fort Collins, Greeley and Denver. A passenger rail line connecting Denver International Airport along Interstate 70 to Vail is in the early stages of study but is an encouraging sign, she said.

"That could be a real positive, but we've been waiting to see what takes shape," she said.

Colorado Springs' Zelenok said that studies show people will change their mode of transportation when they meet a 20-minute threshold. That is, when they can save 20 minutes getting from point A to B, they will trade the traffic congestion for the hassle of taking the bus or carpooling.

Here, funding for public transit has not increased for 20 years, and other transportation alternatives have not been installed. So it's no surprise, then, to learn that Colorado Springs' arteries are close to capacity and getting worse.

But with Owens' Republican cheerleaders sticking to their praises and keeping any criticism over the fiscally brash plan to themselves, it's unclear why the governor didn't cut El Paso County a bigger piece of his TRANS pie.

After all, Republican voters here are largely credited with giving the governor the slim margin to put him in office.

For years, under Democratic rule, El Paso County suffered while a disproportionate amount of the state's highway dollars went to the Denver Metro area. The TRANS bill would continue that trend. The only difference: The Grand Old Party is now in charge.

"There is a feeling I get from Republicans that this is a do-or-die thing for Owens, that it's just got to pass," said Feeley. "This is fairly commonly discussed in Republican political circles, that 'this is not really such a good idea, but we have to do it for the governor.'"

-- Matthew Fullen contributed to this report.


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