The Jefferson Parkway project hits more roadblocks

For a moment, it seemed like the battle over Jefferson Parkway was entering a kumbaya era. Late last year, Golden, Boulder and Boulder County all announced they were considering deals to lift their longstanding opposition to the toll road in exchange for certain payoffs from Jefferson County.

The proposed road — through a ten-mile stretch of open land between state highways 128 and 93 — would complete the final segment of the metro-area beltway. If not for a trick of topography that puts Golden directly at the nine o'clock mark on the beltway circle, the project might have been completed years ago. Instead, Golden officials have watched with growing anxiety as construction of the beltway has ticked counterclockwise in various segments: First came C-470 in 1985, then the E-470 tollway in the '90s, and, finally, the Northwest Parkway in Broomfield, which opened in 2003 but was later leased to a private operator.

Over the past fourteen years, Golden has spent $3.3 million on lawyers and lobbyists fighting the project, armed with traffic studies detailing the thousands of additional vehicles the beltway would funnel through the city every day via 93 and U.S. Highway 6. Boulder and Boulder County have also opposed the beltway because of the development it would spur in the area.

But development — and the increased tax base and employment it would bring — is also one of the reasons why Jefferson County and the City of Arvada have been determined to make the road a reality. In 2007, the two governments partnered with Broomfield to form the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, a quasi-public entity created under state law to facilitate construction of the tollway. The JPPHA is currently seeking bids from private companies that would finance the $204 million construction of the toll road and then operate it under a long-term lease. The obvious front-runner is BRISA Auto-estradas; the Portuguese tolled-motorway operator cut a deal in 2007 that earned it a 99-year lease on the Northwest Parkway. As part of that transaction, BRISA put $100 million in an escrow account, $60 million of which will go toward Jefferson Parkway; the remaining $40 million will go to the City of Broomfield if construction is started before 2018. If the project hasn't taken off before then, the money goes back to BRISA.

In order to make the project more appealing for investors, Jefferson County began talking with the groups that oppose the road in mid-2010.

For Boulder, the carrot being offered is Section 16, a 640-acre property at the southwestern corner of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge that Jefferson County has traditionally eyed for future commercial development. Under the agreement, Jeffco would put up half of the $10 million needed to purchase the parcel from the Colorado Land Board, the trustee of certain state-owned properties. Boulder and Boulder County would each pitch in $2 million, and help Jeffco raise the last $1 million; ultimately the land would be established as open space. In return, both Boulder's city and county governments would agree to take a neutral position on the construction of the toll road.

Meanwhile, Jefferson County officials attempted to woo Golden away from its anti-parkway stance by proposing to pay the design and engineering costs for some of the many road-improvement projects the city has been seeking. Mayor Jacob Smith still considers the Jefferson Parkway a "stupid" project that would trigger unwanted development and increase traffic in Golden, but a decision early last year by the Denver Regional Council of Governments to add the parkway to its regional transportation plan has limited Golden's options for blocking the project.

"While we have some leverage to potentially delay or kill the Jefferson Parkway (and we've been effective so far), that leverage isn't unlimited," Smith wrote in a December 10 letter to Golden residents detailing the proposed compromise. "And no one has to my knowledge come up with a plan for funding $150 or $200 million worth of the projects we want in Golden."

Backers of the Jefferson Parkway thought they'd finally appeased the opposition and put the project on a fast track to completion by 2015 — but then, last month, events took a new turn.

On February 3, Boulder mayor Susan Osborne and Boulder County Commissioner Ben Pearlman sent a letter asking Ken Salazar, the former Colorado senator who now heads the Department of the Interior, to delay the sale of a hundred-acre sliver along the east side of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the JPPHA. The $2.8 million land purchase is key to obtaining the necessary right-of-way for the toll road.

In response to that letter, then-Jefferson County Commissioner Kevin McCasky sent his own missive to Salazar, noting that the Boulder effort to "thwart the transfer of the transportation right of way not only delays progress on the Jefferson Parkway, but also prevents completion of the agreement and acquisition of Section 16."

McCasky, the driving force behind the Jefferson Parkway project, was elected Jefferson County commissioner in 2004 and re-elected in 2008. But he recently resigned his commissioner seat to take a job as head of the Jefferson Economic Council, a business group deeply involved in local politics and development that has commissioned several studies advocating completion of the beltway.

A February 16 article in the Columbine Courier reported that McCasky had encouraged his fellow county commissioners to increase JEC funding from $380,000 to $400,000 even while he was under consideration for the economic-council position. "It appears as though McCasky abused his position as county commissioner for private gain, either gaining increased consideration of his candidacy for the position at the JEC or an increased budget for the organization he would work for in the future, or both," said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, when his group filed a complaint against McCasky with the state ethics commission last week. McCasky dismisses any suggestion that his latest vote had anything to do with a possible job offer. "Over the years, I have voted seven times as county commissioner to fund the Jefferson Economic Council," he responds. "I have run campaigns where I've been very clear that I believe that the Jefferson Parkway is critical to the economic condition of the county. I have never been bashful about that."

The plan hit another bump, at a nearly four-hour public meeting on February 24, the Golden City Council voted to rebuff Jefferson County's initial offer, which would have committed $1.5 million to plan for a new road interchange. Instead, Golden's negotiators have been instructed go back to the table with a lengthy list of demands, including one that would require a solid agreement to fully fund key improvements to intersections and roads in the city, and another insisting that any contract with a future toll-road concessionaire exclude what critics have dubbed "non-compete agreements" — i.e. ,clauses that makes it cost-prohibitive for governments to improve local roads in a manner that might cut into a toll road's bottom line. Golden's attorneys are already at work on legal filings in case such a deal can't be reached and the JPPHA continues to move forward with the road.

"Our ability to keep obstructing and maybe killing the Jefferson Parkway, for us to give that up, we've got to get a lot in exchange," Smith says. "So to actually get the projects built that we need for our town is really important."

Golden has also sent its own letter to Interior Secretary Salazar, asking for a delay in the sale of the Rocky Flats land. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson, staff are working to finalize the legal documents necessary for the property sale, though they do not yet have a projected closing date.

JPPHA director Bill Ray doesn't see any of Golden's recent actions as an insurmountable roadblock to the parkway. "Golden's stated position is actually encouraging, because instead of saying they're just simply going to oppose it, they've put on the table their willingness to sit down and begin negotiations," he says. "Understanding that there is still significant opposition, the result still holds the possibility for us to settle this thing amicably."

Golden City Councilman Bob Vermeulen says he thinks that Jefferson County officials "have done a really good job in the past six to twelve months of dividing" the opposition. "And it doesn't surprise me that, with a little bit of effort and the backing of our communities, that willingness to come back together as a coalition seems pretty likely right now."

Or, as Rob Medina, president of Citizens Involved in the Northwest Quadrant, sums it up: "If this toll road is going to get built, they're going to have to pay the toll."

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Jared Jacang Maher