The End of the Line
After years of bedeviling some of the state's most powerful people, the Moffat Tunnel Commission is about to disappear. The obscure state agency, which was intended to do nothing more than oversee a pair of ancient railroad and water tunnels under James Peak, will chug into the sunset on February 1, the victim of a state law mandating its extinction.
In its day, the elected tunnel board made life miserable for a long line of local notables: Wellington Webb; Roy Romer; the Winter Park ski resort; the Southern Pacific Railroad; even the Arlberg Club, a group of blueblood skiers who nearly blew a gasket when the agency went to court to make their membership rolls public.
The commission's glory days began in 1990, when three unlikely activists were elected to a body that up to that point had been seen mainly as a patronage plum for Denver's country-club set. What follows are the greatest hits of the political mouse that roared.
November 1980: After making three unsuccessful runs for the tunnel commission, Walter O. Cass, a viola-playing tax attorney who once traveled around Chicago in bulletproof cars as an assistant to the leader of that city's musicians' union, is elected to the board. He feels excluded because he's "not one of the 17th Street boys" and believes boardmember Harold Writer warms up to him only after seeing him play the viola during a party at the Broadmoor Hotel. Cass lies low, but the wheels in his head begin to turn.
December 1983: The commission makes the last payment on the bonds used to build the tunnels but continues to collect taxes for an extra year. In the process, it assembles a war chest of several hundred thousand dollars. Cass begins questioning a deal signed before his election in which the commission gave the Winter Park resort a freebie lease on 22 acres of state land known as the "Evans Tract."
November 1990: Cass is joined on the board by fellow Democrats Edward J. "Jake" Jakubowski Jr. and Tim Flanagan. Their presence allows him to address one of his pet peeves: the board's large monthly payments to Charles W. Ennis, a Republican district captain and neighbor of former commissioner John Law who's been serving as the commission's staff attorney. At the first meeting under the new majority, Ennis is summarily fired. Cass describes his dismissal as "a coup." Jakubowski prefers to call it "the massacre in the boardroom."
January 1991: An era of hellraising is ushered in slowly as Jakubowski, a Denver Water Department employee, spends his first few months in office attempting to obtain letterhead stationery for the panel. He begins wearing bow ties to meetings. Later he will request that a statement be read into the record saluting the U.S. Army's performance during the Battle of the Bulge.
February 1991: Still miffed about Ennis's axing, commissioner Bruce Dines demands that a statement be read into the record bemoaning his friend's fate. It concludes, "What a tragedy! What a misfortune! What a shame! What a pity!"
October 1991: Three Southern Pacific executives arrive in Denver expecting to wrap up a lease to run fiber-optic lines through the railroad tunnel. Cass accuses them of treating the commission like a "pushover." According to a railroad attorney, he then forces them to cool their heels while he leaves the meeting to buy a new cassette tape for his tape recorder and stops off at Woolworth's for a bite to eat.
May 1992: Railroad attorney Jim Gatlin is so incensed by the prolonged bickering over the fiber-optic lease that he approaches Cass and Jakubowski in the Union Station hallway and, says Jakubowski, calls them "sons of bitches." Gatlin recalls using the word "bullshit."
August 1992: Gearing up for the November election, Cass laments the position of Moffat Tunnel candidates' names on the ballot. "It's way down at the end," he complains. "You have to be a midget to reach it. I tried to get a couple of people from the circus to vote for me."
November 1992: Cass and Jakubowski beat back a challenge from former commissioners and Denver Country Club members Rendle Myer and John M. Law, who accuse them of being too "confrontational." "Tell Cass he's absolutely crazy," says Myer. Cass responds, "This is a street fight, Chicago-style, baby."
August 1993: After Wellington Webb cuts a backroom deal with Winter Park to sell the city-owned ski area to the resort's board, Cass shows up at a Denver City Council meeting to speak against the plan. The council tells Webb to take a hike.
November 1993: Cass announces he has discovered a clause in a 1939 agreement between the city and the commission that gives the commission the power to kick the ski resort off its property with thirty days' notice.
April 1994: The commission declares the freebie lease at Winter Park null and void and demands that the resort begin paying $320,000 per year in rent.
May 1994: After signing a new deal with Denver under which it will pay the city roughly $2 million per year, Winter Park turns its attention to the tunnel commission. During a meeting, Jakubowski tells resort president Jerry Groswold, the son of an Arlberger, "We all know what we're here for." Groswold, still peeved about Cass and Jakubowski's loud opposition to his hush-hush deal with Webb, replies, "Maybe you do, but I don't."
January 1995: Stung by Cass's threat to "build a Taco Bell" on the commission land leased to the resort, Winter Park and Southern Pacific team up on a bill that would eliminate the commission. Jakubowski brands the effort a "cowardly act."
January 1995: The commission sues Winter Park and threatens to kick it off its land. It demands that the Arlberg Club, which also leases property to Winter Park, disclose its membership roster.
February 1995: At a hearing before the House State Affairs Committee on the ski resort's bill, Jakubowksi hands out an information sheet accusing Winter Park of attempted larceny. The bill dies in committee.
March 1996: Running out of cash and under siege from Winter Park, the railroad, the Denver Water Board, the mayor's office and the governor's office, the commission throws in the towel. The commissioners agree not to contest a new Winter Park bill seeking their extermination. The resort, eager to begin a new base development, agrees to purchase the Evans Tract for $2 million. The commissioners still can't help gloating a little about having held up the resort's development for at least two years. "As pompous as Jerry Groswold is," notes commissioner Dick Rudolph, "he was probably physically ill when he signed that settlement."
December 1996: After learning that Romer has snubbed him and his colleagues by appointing five new people to take their places in the commission's final year, an enraged Jakubowski calls an emergency New Year's Eve meeting. He unveils a suicide plan, under which the board would vote itself out of existence before Romer's appointees can be seated. The plot is foiled when attorney Gatlin throws a fit and the other commissioners chicken out. "I watched three human beings turn into Larry, Curly and Moe right at the meeting," laments Jakubowski.
January 1998: The new Moffat Tunnel Commission sells the water tunnel to the Denver Water Board for $7 million. Jakubowski says he's proud of his successors, even though he tried to screw them out of their jobs. The railroad tunnel remains an asset of the state.
January 1998: Walter Cass continues to practice law and play engagements with the Cassio Strings orchestra. Longtime tunnel-board assistant Doug Freed offers an epitaph for the agency: "Sometimes it's good to go out with a whimper." The still-simmering Jakubowski isn't so sure. "In seven years, we went from good old boys telling fish stories to doing war with the SP railroad, Wellington Webb, Roy Romer and the General Assembly," he says proudly. "We rivaled Dennis the Menace."
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