By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By the mid-'90s, Jeffco was at a stalemate. "You can call it W-470, the Northwest Parkway or Fluffy the Cat," then-Wheat Ridge city councilman Vance Edwards told then-Jefferson County Commissioner Michelle Lawrence in 1997 ("Blacktop Jungle," June 19, 1997). "But it just doesn't seem to die. Just when you think it's finally dead, it pops up again."
"Well," replied Lawrence curtly. "Fluffy has nine lives."
Fluffy got new life in 1999, when Broomfield (which became a county in 2001), Lafayette and Weld County spun off and created their own highway authority to build a section of the beltway from I-25 to Highway 36. The Northwest Parkway opened in 2003, funded through the sale of $416 million in bonds to investors hoping for a quick return. But once cars started hitting the pavement, it quickly became apparent that traffic projections for the toll road were wildly optimistic.
In a 2001 traffic forecast, transportation consultant Vollmer Associates had estimated that the Northwest Parkway would host more than 30,000 cars a day in 2004 and pull in $12 million in fees. In reality, the toll road's opening year saw about 7,500 vehicles a day, resulting in a puny $6.3 million take that year. Then-Northwest Parkway director Steve Hogan blamed the shortfall on everything from 9/11 to a slowdown in residential development. But naysayers argued that the parkway was a misconceived project from the outset, fashioned more for the highway and real-estate industries than the needs of actual drivers.
The Northwest Parkway Highway Authority tried everything from increasing tolls to advertising the road through radio and direct mail in hopes of raising traffic stats and income — but in 2006, the parkway still earned $10 million less than had been projected. After an attempt to restructure the debt fell through and the parkway's bonds had officially fallen to "junk" status, Hogan decided the only way to escape default was to put the toll road up for lease.
Portuguese tolled-motorway operator Brisa Auto-Estradas teamed up with Brazil's Companhia de Concessoes Rodoviarias to bail out the Northwest Parkway authority. Their $503 million investment paid off the debt and earned them the right to operate a small stretch of highway in the middle of the United States — and collect tolls on that road for the next 99 years.
But they hope the stretch won't stay small for long. To maximize their profit potential, Brisa and the Brazilian company built into the deal $100 million in incentives for the Northwest Parkway authority to push the completion of the beltway to Highway 93. A $40 million sweetener will go to Broomfield if the beltway extension is completed by 2020. If it is, Brisa will pay another $60 million toward the cost of building the beltway right up to Golden.
Back in 2001, Jefferson County and local municipalities commissioned engineering firm CH2M Hill to examine the best ways to improve transportation in the "Northwest Quadrant" of the metro area. The resulting report determined that improving arterial roads, particularly Highway 93 and Indiana Street, was the best way to handle traffic in the area — not building a freeway. But the next year, then-CDOT chief Tom Norton gave Fluffy yet another life when he authorized an Environmental Impact Statement to determine the best way to complete the beltway around Denver.
Golden officials viewed this process as biased from the outset. "By the way that they framed the question, they came out with a preordained answer," says land-use attorney John Putnam, who represents the town. "If the question is how do you move people as quickly from point A to point B, it's kind of a no-brainer to say you build a major freeway-type facility. What they ignored was an analysis of where people are really trying to go, where is the congestion and what's the best way to deal with the congestion."
Various Jeffco entities started funding highway feasibility studies, counter studies and counter-counter studies that ate up tens of millions of dollars and involved dozens of consultants and attorneys.
The state's EIS study continued until early 208, sucking up $15 million before new CDOT director Russ George, who'd been appointed by Governor Bill Ritter, determined that there was no money in the state transportation budget to complete the EIS and find consensus, let alone fund the beltway. In July, the study was canceled and the work done thus far released in a truncated "planning document."
But already in May, Broomfield had banded together with Jefferson County and Arvada to form the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, with the goal of pushing the beltway to just outside Golden. Each jurisdiction contributed $100,000 and one member to the three-member JPPHA board: Jefferson County Commissioner Kevin McCasky, who's serving as the chairman; Arvada mayor Bob Frie; and Broomfield mayor Patrick Quinn.
The JPPHA's website invokes Ritter's Blue Ribbon transportation panel in noting how Colorado's transportation system faces a "quiet crisis." Since its gasoline-tax revenue has eroded to less than a third of what it was a decade ago, "the state faces an estimated $53 billion shortfall between now and 2035 just to maintain the existing state road system in its present condition," says the website. In this environment, new projects like the Jefferson Parkway would be roadkill were it not for the types of "public-private partnerships" and other "creative" financing options that Ritter slipped into his State of the State speech earlier this month.