Road Warriors

Boon or boondoggle, Bill Owens's highway plan has to get past Douglas Bruce before it goes anywhere.

For Bruce, the evisceration of the blue book is a major blow. The pro-TRANS campaign has raised more than $700,000 -- most of it from construction companies and bond dealers -- to blitz voters with TV, radio and direct-mail advertising. Bruce has a handful of volunteers and expects to spend $10,000 of his own money to distribute fliers and bumper stickers urging #A VOTE NO IT'S YOUR DOUGH. The blue book was his best shot at getting his message into the hands of millions of voters.

"It obviously hurts," he says, "because when you have a low-budget campaign, one of the key things you have is the ability to get your arguments out in this publication."

A few days after the hearing, Bruce went to Denver District Court in an effort to stop publication of the blue book. Judge Paul Markson refused to intervene, saying that Bruce could challenge the process if Referendum A passed. Bruce's response was typically caustic: "The judge came up with this idiotic ruling that he doesn't have to enforce the [state] Constitution until after the election."

Directing traffic: After opposing previous highway funding schemes and light rail, Governor Bill Owens decided to push for both projects.
Anthony Camera
Directing traffic: After opposing previous highway funding schemes and light rail, Governor Bill Owens decided to push for both projects.


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But Bruce still manages an end-run around the legislature. Under a provision of TABOR, proponents and opponents of ballot issues are allowed to submit 500-word summaries of their positions for distribution by county election officials. Bruce's comments attacking the plan as vague and fiscally irresponsible, a "huge potential ripoff" with its own "secret slush fund," weigh in at a tidy 497 words and will be sent to voters unedited.

Such canny tactics are essential to the survival of Bruce's low-rent crusade. Early polling data indicates that TRANS is heavily favored by traffic-weary commuters, but Bruce dismisses the numbers as meaningless. Other massive transportation proposals were voted down three times in recent years, despite well-funded campaigns designed to cajole citizens into opening their wallets.

"The same list of projects has been rejected in statewide elections two years in a row," he says, "and these arrogant bastards are coming back a third time with the same list. People ought to be outraged that the politicians are spending $4 million in state money to have an election to tell us we didn't know what we were doing in 1997 and 1998."

But TRANS is a more sophisticated proposal than its predecessors -- it's not a tax increase, although Bruce would argue otherwise -- and the bastardy pushing for its passage make up a formidable bunch. Bruce stands virtually alone against a broad spectrum of political and business leaders, including many of his former allies in the conservative camp. His critics question whether the acerbic Bruce can build an effective coalition to defeat the measure, but Bruce doesn't believe he has to win friends to influence people.

Actually, the fact that Bruce is so well-loathed among the state's power brokers may be to his advantage. He's planning to tap into the same average-joe mistrust of politicians that swept TABOR into being in 1992, a taxpayer revolt that changed the way government operates in the state. As Bruce sees it, TRANS represents a major threat to TABOR and what it stands for, and his lonely crusade is the kind of campaign politicians fear most: a matter of principle rather than personal gain.

"I'm getting zero out of this," he says. "That's what they find so frustrating. They can't pin me with some improper motive. I don't even have any kids who are going to get stuck with the debt."

If politics is the art of compromise, then Douglas Bruce is no politician. It's his way or the highway.

The quandary over how to address the growing transportation needs of Colorado's booming population has produced some peculiar alliances in recent months, with Governor Owens leading the way. At this time last year, candidate Owens, like Bruce, was strongly opposed to Referendum B, a measure that would have allowed the state to retain $1 billion in surplus tax revenues and apply half of that amount to transportation projects. This year he's proposing that the state go $2.3 billion into debt to fund many of the same projects.

Two years ago, Owens was one of a horde of conservative detractors of the Regional Transportation District's $6 billion Guide the Ride plan, which would have raised taxes to build major transit improvements, including several light-rail lines, throughout the Denver metro area. A veteran light-rail critic, last fall he also scoffed at RTD's push to extend the current rail line southeast, arguing that a fixed guideway bus line would be a cheaper, more effective solution. But in recent months he's campaigned in support of Referendum 4A, RTD's ballot proposal to borrow $457 million through the bond market to help pay for a rail line along south I-25, in conjunction with the highway expansion.

The governor's supporters defend his efforts as entirely consistent with his campaign promises. Borrowing the money for highways, they say, won't raise anybody's taxes, because the debt will be repaid with "anticipated" federal funds. TRANS financing, now used by all but a few states, allows Colorado to put dollars to work that it otherwise would not receive for years, cutting the timetable for construction and saving hundreds of millions from the ravages of inflation -- enough, depending on market conditions, to potentially make up for the interest paid on the bonds.

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