Longform

This State for Sale: A Special Report

Like most of his fellow road warriors, Bill Owens has spent too much of his life stuck in traffic, usually during what passes for rush hour in the Denver metroplex. When he lived in southeast Aurora, his daily crawl on I-25 to downtown took an agonizing 30 to 45 minutes--and that was on a good day. There was no way out, really, except to find a new home that was closer to work.

Like the Governor's Mansion.
Declaring the current level of congestion on the interstate to be "totally unacceptable," Owens made highway projects a focus of his campaign. In ads and debates, he hammered away at the lack of leadership in the governor's office on traffic issues--a tradition of Democratic foot-dragging stretching back two decades, to Governor Richard Lamm's effort to drive a "silver stake" through the 470 beltway. Owens pledged to add lanes and develop a rapid-transit system in the southeast corridor in record time. Voters ate it up, particularly since his opponent, Gail Schoettler, seemed to think the traffic problem was more a question of lifestyle than lane size. Schoettler insisted the state couldn't pave its way out of the mess, an assertion no commuter wanted to hear.

Six months after his victory, no one can accuse Owens of not taking his pledge seriously. He's extracted from the legislature a stack of reforms that are supposed to allow the Colorado Department of Transportation to operate more efficiently in designing and contracting major highway improvements. He's boosted the visibility and political clout of CDOT, tapping former foes to serve in key posts--gubernatorial rival Tom Norton as director and developer Joseph Blake, a Norton supporter who helped lead the campaign for a highway tax that Owens opposed, as an appointee to the Colorado Transportation Commission. And he's come up with a bold scheme to finance new roads by borrowing billions of dollars against future federal funding, a plan that's supposed to speed up construction schedules and deliver commuter relief in a fraction of the time such massive projects usually require.

But the road to better highways is long and winding, and the governor's plan has already hit a few detours. Last month the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that his administration cannot proceed with its financing scheme without first obtaining voter approval. An unlikely array of opponents, from liberal Democrats to conservative anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, is already lining up to denounce the plan. CDOT's eagerness to get the show on the road has also rattled a few cages among the light-rail acolytes at the Regional Transportation District, an agency known for fiercely protecting its own road shows--and sideshows.

Pursuing his highway agenda has revealed some of the contradictions built into Owens's policies. A fiscal conservative who opposed last year's Referendum B, a measure that would have allowed the state to retain $1 billion in surplus tax revenues and apply half of that amount to transportation projects, he's now proposing that the state go $2.3 billion into debt to fund many of the same projects. A veteran light-rail critic--during the campaign, he argued that a fixed guideway bus line would be a cheaper, more effective fix along I-25 than another rail line--he's now promoting a twenty-mile stretch of railway that will be far costlier than anything the RTD's electric-choo-choo enthusiasts have been able to get on track. It's as if the electorate had invited Barry Goldwater to dinner, only to have LBJ show up instead.

But supporters of the governor's transportation plan insist that his conservative background only makes the proposal more credible. His strong relationship with Colorado's primarily Republican congressional delegation, they say, could help the state get federal matching funds that would elude a more liberal governor. "It's like Nixon going to China," says RTD boardmember Jack McCroskey, a longtime backer of the southeast rail line. "Bill can get it done."

Others, though, see the plan as a dubious move into deficit spending, one that will enrich bond dealers and construction firms at the expense of taxpayers. They are troubled by the plan's rapidly ballooning price tag and CDOT's failure to designate how the money will be spent. Despite assurances to the contrary, they fear the money will be poured into a bottomless pit of I-25 upgrades, robbing the rest of the state of badly needed road improvements in order to accommodate the burgeoning business interests of metro Denver.

"I think it's outrageous to say that's a fiscally conservative approach, to spend money that you don't have," says Bruce, author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment, the formidable cap on state taxation and spending that the highway plan seeks to finesse. "Credit-card government is something we want to avoid."

At the heart of the Owens plan is a funding mechanism known as transportation revenue anticipation notes, or TRANS, that allows states to raise money by issuing road bonds and using future federal highway funds to pay off the principal and interest. The build-now-pay-later bonds are becoming a trendy solution to long-neglected roads in a growing number of states from New Jersey to New Mexico. Backers argue that the proposed Colorado scheme wouldn't violate state prohibitions against contracting long-term debt because it would be subject to an annual appropriation of federal funding. In theory, the state could default on the bonds if the federal flow dried up.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast