The Blacktop Jungle

Are the series of superhighways inching their way around Denver a "beltway"--or a noose?

That E-470 even survived the legal and financial roadblocks put in its path is testimony to the powerful interests behind it. Besides the opposition from the Arapahoe County commissioners, E-470 had to go to court to prove it had complied with a state constitutional amendment limiting tax increases. Beltway opponents argued that the E-470 authority violated the TABOR amendment by remarketing bonds for the project; the Colorado Supreme Court said that debt was authorized before voters passed the amendment and could not be challenged.

Work was also delayed in 1994 when the tollway's main contractor, construction goliath Morrison Knudsen, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The financial problems were finally ironed out when Southern California contractor Fluor-Daniel entered into a partnership to build the tollway with Morrison Knudsen.

Along the way, Morrison Knudsen has taken other steps to protect the financial interest it has in getting the project built. In 1992 the giant Boise, Idaho, firm hired the politically powerful Denver law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland. Former U.S. Senate candidate and self-proclaimed environmentalist Tom Strickland was the key player in the firm's defense of E-470. Strickland lobbied in the state legislature, worked to unseat the hostile Arapahoe County commissioners, and helped to arrange a $20 million loan to E-470 from the state transportation commission. There's a good reason Strickland's pitch to the commission didn't fall on deaf ears--he served on the commission between 1985 and 1989, the last two years as its chairman. The Brownstein firm also played a part in the multi-million-dollar sale of bonds to fund the tollway, earning $420,000 in fees.

The tollway still faces several obstacles before it reaches I-25 in Adams County. Hogan says there isn't enough potential traffic yet to justify completing the highway from 120th Avenue to I-25. Work on the northernmost link, which would help funnel northside auto traffic to DIA, probably won't begin until after the turn of the century.

E-470 wouldn't be happening if not for Denver's new airport. The eastern beltway was touted as a necessity to help suburban residents reach DIA, and the same high-powered political coalition that pushed for DIA supported the road. Frightened by the regional recession of the mid-1980s, voters abandoned their skepticism of high-powered development schemes and rallied behind a pro-growth business agenda that included a new airport, reconstructed streets and highways, and the novel eastside highway that would break with local tradition by charging a toll.

"During the 1980s there was a powerhouse political coalition for growth at any cost," says James. "That's the coalition that pushed E-470."

Officials in Arapahoe and Adams counties, as well as in Aurora, Parker, Commerce City and Thornton, lobbied for the new highway. The state legislature authorized the creation of the E-470 Public Highway Authority in 1987, and the next year voters in Adams and Arapahoe counties were asked to approve a $10-per-year motor-vehicle registration fee to help pay for the new road. They okayed the fee by a vote of 126,116 to 91,305, setting in motion the financial juggernaut that finally sent bulldozers rumbling across the plains.

Promoters were willing to pay whatever price was necessary to push E-470 through. Today a silent witness to their tenacity remains on the prairie near Sixth Avenue. Jude, a 39-year-old mule belonging to the elderly owner of a key piece of property in the highway's path, represented a possible threat to the road. He had grazed on the land for decades, and his owner was very concerned about him. To reassure her, the E-470 authority agreed to build Jude a new home. "We created a new pasture for him as part of the project," says Hogan. "We agreed to take care of the mule until the day it dies."

Colorado 93 is a narrow, windswept road that gives drivers a taste of the Old West. Linking Golden and Boulder, the two-lane highway runs over rickety wooden bridges and past gravel turnoffs into ranches that still have homemade signs welcoming visitors. The bucolic scene becomes more ominous as the road heads north past the Rocky Flats plant, which still houses fourteen tons of deadly plutonium.

This may seem an improbable spot for dreams of super highways, regional shopping centers, vast office parks and upscale housing. But officials in Arvada and Jefferson County think that one day this stretch of rural asphalt will rival Park Meadows as a suburban beehive.

To make that happen, a new freeway replacing Colorado 93 would be a necessity. And since voters in the area turned down a plan to build a four-lane highway known as W-470 in 1989 by a four-to-one margin, proponents of a new road--which they've redubbed the Northwest Parkway--have their work cut out for them. But just as E-470 survived multiple crises, boosters are determined to see their vision of a spanking new highway linking Golden with Arvada, Broomfield and Adams County come to pass.

"It's ludicrous to have a beltway three-quarters of the way around the city," says Jeffco commissioner Michelle Lawrence. "The one piece missing is out of my district."

A former state representative from Arvada, Lawrence has emerged as a leading proponent of the Northwest Parkway. She's now trying to secure funding for a $500,000 feasibility study that would assess the potential for a new highway through the northern part of the county. She says beltway opponents--including residents along Colorado 93 and the cities of Golden and Wheat Ridge--are fighting the inevitable and that growth in the area will one day require an expanded highway.

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