Will the proposed Jefferson Parkway toll road take Colorado commuters for a ride?

For photos from Jared Jacang Maher's driving tour of Denver beltway, go to westword.com/slideshow. Read more on developing the Rocky Flats here.

Jefferson County has a bold vision for how to brand itself as a leader in the new green economy. Officials talk about smart development, open space, multi-modal transportation, renewable energy and progressive technology that will lessen our country's dependence on fossil fuels. So what's Jeffco's solution?

Another highway.

Not just any highway, either. The proposed $813 million Jefferson Parkway will be a high-speed tollway stretching some fourteen miles through the last undeveloped quadrant in the metro region. Boosters — Broomfield and Arvada primary among them — see the road as a catalyst for massive building growth in the area, potentially dumping billions into the local economy through high-end commercial and office development.

The Jefferson Parkway would also realize a long-sought dream: the completion of Denver's beltway. The first section of the highway that circles the city was laid down in southern Jefferson County more than twenty years ago, and the road has since crept piece by piece around the outskirts of Denver, leaving just one last section empty. But while the rest of the beltway plowed over open farmland and prairie, this section, between Highway 36 and I-70, holds three major geographic obstacles: the 6,000-acre Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, North and South Table Mountains and, most important, the city of Golden.

"Golden's contention from the beginning is that this has always been about development, not about transportation," says Jacob Smith, who was elected mayor in 2007; a major plank in his platform was fighting the beltway's incursion into Golden. The 19,000-resident town sits in a valley, and the most practical route for the road would be on top of Highway 6, just three-quarters of a mile from the historic downtown and a dozen or so yards from housing developments that would be cut off from the rest of Golden. A few years ago, Golden officials funded a study that suggested beltway enthusiasts could instead put their road in a tunnel under a portion of the town — at a cost of $200 million.

Proponents of the Jefferson Parkway balked at that, but they didn't give up on the idea of building the beltway. Their current plans have the road curling south from Broomfield, swooping over to Highway 93 and stopping right at the Golden city limits. It's like a traffic-loaded shotgun aimed right down Golden's throat — and a foreign company could very well have its finger on the trigger.

The message: There's the hard way, and then there's the beltway.

The battle of the beltway started in the early 1970s, when regional officials and environmentalists first faced off on plans to build a federally funded freeway ring around Denver called Interstate 470. Richard Lamm, who was elected governor in 1974, slammed the brakes on the project, arguing that it was an invitation for sprawl.

"I believed very passionately back in 1976 that I-470 was an institution out of the past, that we were already in an oil crisis, that it was inevitable that we would have continuing oil crises, and that for environmental purposes, the city of the future should be built around mass transit," says Lamm, who famously vowed to drive a "silver stake" through the heart of the proposed project.

Ultimately, only one portion of the hundred-mile beltway — Colorado Highway 470, which connected Interstate 70 to Interstate 25 — would survive as a wholly public link; it opened in 1985. But by then, beltway supporters were already working to create a new tool so they could build highways without having to resort to state or federal funding. And in 1987, the Colorado Legislature passed a law allowing local governments to form public highway authorities, pseudo-public entities that could condemn land, issue bonds and build roads — either by toll or by creating special taxing districts.

The next year, Extension-470 was born. Cities and counties in the southeast suburbs were able to convince voters to pass a $10-per-year vehicle registration fee that, along with tolls, would fund the twelve-year expansion of the E-470 tollway from its birthplace at the edge of C-470 near the soon-to-be town of Lone Tree, past what would become Denver International Airport, and on to the distant north end of I-25 in Broomfield.

The same strategy didn't work for a northwest link, though. The Western-470 Authority, comprising nine northwest cities and counties, wanted to complete the beltway around metro Denver — but in 1989, voters in Jefferson, Boulder and Adams counties shot down a vehicle registration tax proposal by a 4 to 1 margin.

Arvada City Councilwoman Lorraine Anderson was on the task force that helped create E-470 and was a key promoter of W-470. "In the west side of town, the citizens weren't as generous with tax support as the east side of Denver," she laments. "Back then, we were hoping we could complete it the same time as E-470."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jared Jacang Maher