Road Warriors

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

Since that time, Bruce has acted as a one-man wrecking crew, battling the highway plan in every available forum. He's attacked the plan's assumptions about interest rates, pointing out that there's no set limit to the amount of the $2.3 billion that might go to interest and other financing costs rather than roads.

He's argued that to sink into decades of debt on the promise of repayment through a federal highway program that currently doesn't extend beyond five years is to court default, jeopardizing the state's reputation and credit rating in the process.

He's suggested alternative sources of funding and advocated a pay-as-you-go approach, raising the specter of a tax hike down the line to fund other services as the TRANS commitment devours incoming highway moneys.

Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).
Brett Amole
Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).

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He's sneered at the pro-TRANS camp's efforts to make roads and light rail on I-25 a package deal, comparing the situation to "two crippled boxers grabbing onto each other in order to stand up in the ring."

At a formal hearing a few weeks ago, the former Los Angeles prosecutor even quizzed Owens and his lieutenants about whether they were using state resources and time to campaign for TRANS. His inquiry turned up questionable trips and meetings and pro-TRANS articles prepared at taxpayers' expense, but an administrative law judge found nothing improper since none of the activities directly urged people to "Vote for Referendum A."

"It's scary that the government now has this license to steal by having unlimited campaign activity as long as they don't say the four magic words," Bruce says. "Thomas Jefferson said to compel a man to pay money for the propagation of ideas with which he disagrees is sinful and tyrannical."

Perhaps the strongest case Bruce has made against TRANS -- one that might attract enough negative votes outside the Denver area to tip the balance -- has to do with the uncertainty about what a couple billion dollars might buy these days. Although the blue book contains a list of 24 road projects that are supposed to be accelerated by the funding, the total cost of those projects is more than $4.4 billion. Regular highway funds will be spent on some of the projects as well, but it's unclear which of the roads will get the TRANS funds first or how that will affect the completion of others. No highway work will be speeded up by thirteen years, as Wadhams claims; the I-25 work will be completed nine years sooner, but some projects would actually be delayed by the influx of new cash. And if the widening of I-25 through the Denver Tech Center hogs roughly a third of the money, where does that leave Durango, Dacono, Pueblo and Frisco?

Bruce is hardly alone in his reservations. "Outside of I-25, anyone who thinks they're going to get a rebuilt highway out of this is kidding themselves," says Democrat Feeley. "It's an awful lot of money, but it's not nearly enough."

But Wadhams says he's "comfortable" with the way the proposal has identified specific projects, and legislators who helped carry the TRANS bill insist the measure will benefit road projects throughout the state. "It isn't a Front Range versus Western Slope thing," says Speaker of the House Russell George of Rifle, who's held numerous meetings with constituents in recent months to explain the intricacies of the bill. "My whole political presence requires me to be accurate and honest about this."

Yet Bruce has hammered away at the plan's vast promises and equally formidable unknowns -- exploiting every contradiction, hinting at deception and calling into question the trustworthiness of the politicians stumping for the measure. On this last point, his critics say, he may have gone too far. One of Bruce's greatest liabilities as a campaigner is his bellicosity, his scarcely concealed contempt for "trough-feeding parasites" and "borrow-and-spenders" -- in short, lawmakers, lobbyists and anyone else snuffling after his tax dollars.

"Doug is often his own worst enemy," says Feeley. "Even his good points are lost because of his approach -- the acerbicness, the out-and-out nastiness. He's insulting. He's demeaning. One reason you haven't seen more organized opposition is that no one wants to align themselves with Doug Bruce."

No one in the legislature, anyway. Russell George recalls how Bruce lit into him last spring when George was carrying the highway bill, drawing an invidious comparison between the Speaker of the House's tactics and the Red-baiting of Joe McCarthy.

"I turned to him," George says, "and said, 'You're out of your goddamned mind. You don't need to abuse me like that.' If people ever listen to his arguments, he's brilliant. He studies, and there is some meat to what he does. If you're really trying to do the job right, you kind of have to work with him.

"But the way he presents his case eventually turns off the best of us. Most people don't even pay attention when he walks in. They have a tendency to walk out. I think he's lost any influence he could have had otherwise. He's certainly lost the influence that his ideas might merit."

Legislators accustomed to Bruce's tirades tend to view them as an expression of his deep-seated disgust with government in all forms. "He always runs a negative campaign," says Ray Powers. "It wouldn't seem like Douglas Bruce if he was less inflammatory."

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