Ridden Out on a Rail
For more than twenty years, Edie Bryan has been an advocate of alternative means of transportation -- formerly as a Lakewood city councilwoman and RTD boardmember, and most recently as the chairwoman of the Colorado Rail Advisory Committee. But now that Colorado has elected a governor who wants bigger and wider highways, speaking out about other forms of transit can be a dangerous road to take.
Bryan found out just how sensitive the administration of Governor Bill Owens is last month when Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Tom Norton suddenly abolished her committee and accused it of lobbying state legislators to vote for changes to a highway funding bill that his department supports.
"I am writing this letter to inform you that I am disbanding the Colorado Rail Advisory Committee (CORAC) effective immediately," Norton wrote in a January 14 letter to Bryan. "I was made aware that there have been recent lobbying efforts with a state legislator regarding pending legislation...CORAC was established to advise CDOT and not to lobby the state legislature...In order to prevent this continued misuse of CORAC, I am disbanding [it]."
Bryan was shocked, and she and CORAC secretary Jon Esty asked around to see if they could find out who had spoken with the unnamed legislator. After they were satisfied that none of their colleagues had done so, they met with Norton to ask for an explanation. But "Norton would not tell us who it was," Esty says, "and he said it didn't matter because it was kind of water under the bridge."
CDOT spokesman Dan Hopkins says Norton has no comment about the issue, and he declined to name either the legislator or the CDOT member referred to in the letter. "What is in the letter is what we are saying," Hopkins says.
Bryan, however, believes that the real reason why the ten-year-old committee was disbanded was because of its position on House Bill 1003. "He canned us for being outspoken," she says. "We expected them not to listen to us, but to fire us? That was a surprise."
Sponsored by Colorado Springs Republican lawmakers Ron May and Ray Powers, the bill -- which is currently in front of the House Appropriations Committee -- would authorize $15 million to the Highway Tax Users Fund next year and then increase that amount by $15 million annually until fiscal year 2013-14. The funding would cap out at $200 million and continue at that amount in perpetuity. What bothers Bryan and other members of CORAC is that the bill provides money for roads only, without setting anything aside for bike trails, mass transit or rail projects, and the subsidy never ends.
At its January 6 meeting, CORAC voted unanimously to support the bill only if it was amended to include all transportation projects. The next day, Bryan faxed a letter to CDOT lobbyist Mike Fitzsimmons that read in part: "To be fair to all modes with transportation equity, we recommend 50 percent for alternative modes. If the bill is not amended so that funds do not go to all modes of transportation, CDOT should oppose the bill."
Although the letter was sent to Fitzsimmons -- not a legislator -- Bryan thinks it was this sentiment that caused the problems. "Let me reassure you that no individual did anything wrong," she wrote in a January 25 letter to CORAC's 64 members. "Apparently it was our committee's action which provoked this strong reaction."
CORAC's mission was to advise CDOT about rail issues. Its volunteer membership ranged from industry professionals to government officials to concerned citizens who looked over rail legislation, the effectiveness of existing rail lines and the potential use of those that have fallen into disrepair. The group passed its findings on to CDOT. As the years went by, many of the government officials and industry types stopped showing up to meetings, leaving a group of citizens as the core of the active membership.
But this was the first time the group had protested proposed legislation, Esty says. "We were kind of a pain."
For example, Esty and John Peacock, a member of the Fort Collins-based North Front Range Plan, went before the House Transportation Committee to ask that some of the money go to a rail project in Northern Colorado. "The sponsors got so mad that we'd divert money from the highways," Peacock says. "That's why CDOT threw CORAC out."
CORAC vice chairman Joe Larkin thinks the issue goes a level deeper. "Norton is making a statement to everyone," he says. "He's letting everyone know he's in charge."
The problem with CORAC's proposal is that state law requires money from the Highway Tax Users Fund to be spent on highways only. But CDOT's Hopkins says his agency was not involved in drafting the legislation. "This bill is Ron May's baby. We had nothing to do with putting [it] together." Nevertheless, CDOT isn't complaining, because the bill would allow the department to update and rework its twenty-year transportation plan based on the financing.
He adds that rail is a priority within CDOT's overall plan. "We have a huge commitment on the Southeast Corridor and a rail program that will run from Vail to Avon. It's a combined project with RTD that totals $1.6 billion."
But Bryan notes that CDOT used to be called the Department of Highways, so "[its] institutional memory is to build concrete and asphalt. There is a lot of lip service about using rail," she says, but not much else.
Despite being disbanded, the core members of CORAC are not giving up. Bryan says they plan to meet again Thursday at their regularly scheduled time. "We are not going to go away!" she wrote in her letter to the committee's members. "Colorado needs our advocacy and advice."
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