Smith points to such comments as proof that the beltway isn't about traffic, but development. "So it begs the question: Is this appropriate for the state to build a new highway that isn't really about transportation?" he asks. "Yeah, it's maybe good for some people to make a lot of money, maybe even good for the county's coffers, but is that really the right role for the public at large?"

Smith's biggest concern with the Jefferson Parkway isn't traffic or development, however, but the plan to build it through a complicated leasing arrangement with a foreign corporation.

"Going to private market sounds so easy, so painless. It feels a lot like a low-interest loan or a credit card where you don't acknowledge the true cost," Smith says. "But free stuff isn't usually free. What happens with these privatization schemes when something goes wrong and the government and taxpayers have to pick up the pieces and bail out a highway that no one needed in the first place?"

Golden mayor Jacob Smith
Mark Manger
Golden mayor Jacob Smith

According to Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with U.S. Public Interest Research Group who has written extensively about private toll roads, the proposed Jefferson Parkway financing plan is following the same route as the Northwest Parkway deal with Brisa, which was unprecedented in this country. "This is completely turning comprehensive planning on its head," he says. "Instead of the federal government doing block grants for local entities to ensure that the public interest is served, it's a private entity trying to overrule the town of Golden for something that has no connection to a larger regional, much less national, plan, but just doing it because it increases the profits on a particular road."

While toll roads built by public authorities are nothing new in this country, major pieces of infrastructure being leased to private corporations is a recent phenomenon. In 2005, both the City of Chicago and the State of Indiana leased public toll roads to foreign corporations in multi-billion-dollar deals. Brisa saw the Northwest Parkway as a good way to break into the lucrative U.S. market, and it's seeking more acquisitions in California and Texas, as well as in Colorado. But while such deals can look good to local governments in the short term, Baxandall argues that the public loses out in the long term. "What I don't think people quite understand is the built-in costs disadvantage that a private entity has because of its higher cost of borrowing," he says.

And while Richard Lamm now looks back on his pledge to drive a "silver stake" through the heart of the proposed beltway as needlessly confrontational, he cautions policy-makers that relying on more highways — particularly tollways funded by overseas corporations — is indicative of a country still looking in the rear-view mirror. "There's something metaphorical about America not having enough money to build its own transportation system and relying on foreign investors," says Lamm. "I think that the idea that we don't have the national will to build our own transportation and meet infrastructure needs is a metaphor, frankly, of a nation in decline."

But even if Colorado had the will to build its own roads, it might not be able to under the terms of the deals with foreign investors.

Last April, Brisa executive director Pedro Costa sent a letter to Broomfield, warning that a planned extension of West 160th Avenue could be in violation of the Northwest Parkway lease agreement, which prohibits building "Competing Transportation Facilities" that might diminish toll returns. As designed, the extension would essentially create a frontage road for the Northwest Parkway, allowing residents to drive between Lafayette and Broomfield without having to use the toll road or drive an extra two miles to use a state highway.

"We view this realignment and any discussion of any extension of West 160th Avenue as a probable Adverse Action," Costa wrote.

In 2005, the E-470 Authority invoked its own non-compete clause to force Commerce City officials to lower the speed limit and install more traffic lights on Tower Road near Denver International Airport as a de facto method of diverting cars to the toll road.

Smith points to such actions as proof that private tollways can discourage local governments from constructing or improving "competing facilities" (i.e., free roads). Such a non-compete is a "congestion guarantee," he says. "It's essentially a guarantee to the private investors that they're going to keep their own roads congested enough that people are willing to pay tolls on a private road."

He also cites studies indicating that future traffic demands will necessitate improvements along local arterials and Highway 93 heading to Boulder — improvements that could be quashed if the JPPHA signs a no-compete clause with a private tollway investor.

"They're trying to frighten people," counters Arvada's Anderson, who accuses Smith and other Jefferson Parkway opponents of making overblown claims about the no-compete clauses and resorting to "scare tactics." Arvada's main motivation for supporting the toll road has always been "to take regional traffic and keep it out of our neighborhoods," she says.

Jeffco commissioner and JPPHA chair McCasky insists that improving local, free arterial roads will actually be beneficial to a future toll road because they will increase access. But will private investors see it the same way?

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