Toll road restrictions advance in Colorado

| Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Colorado Senate has approved a bill that could be the death knell of the proposed Front Range “Super Slab” project.

Senators unanimously endorsed a bill Jan. 31 that would ban private groups from exercising “eminent domain” to acquire private property to build a road. The bill is now in the House for consideration.

Sponsored by Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, the bill – SB78 – would amend a 19th century state law that gives private businesses the authority to use eminent-domain condemnation procedures to acquire property. The law was intended to promote road building to mining camps.

The measure would give the Colorado Department of Transportation, not private groups, the power to condemn land for road projects. It also would allow developers to form partnerships with the state to allow private investors to build roads.

In addition, proposed private toll roads would be required to go through the same environmental and public review process as any public roadway.

This is the second go-around for the legislation. A similar bill was approved by the General Assembly a year ago before Gov. Bill Owens vetoed it and warned that the state may need private toll roads in the future to pay for roadwork.

Supporters of the bill say a state law enacted in 1877 was not meant to solve 21st century transportation problems, the Denver Post reported.

Dan Hopkins, a spokesman for the governor, said the private investment component in this year’s version would increase its chances of passage.

The bill is intended to halt a proposed 210-mile private toll road – dubbed the Super Slab – from being built on the plains of the Front Range.

The proposed $2 billion route would run from Wellington in northern Colorado to Pueblo in the south. A 12-mile-wide swath where the highway might go would be an eastern alternative to Interstate 25.

The high-speed bypass is favored by developer Ray Wells, president of the Front Range Toll Road Co.

Other lawmakers are pursuing further limitations to toll roads in Colorado.

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, has sponsored a bill that would create more state oversight of private toll-road projects. The bill spells out all the steps private tolling companies would go through to have a project approved.

A separate bill, offered by Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, would bar the use of eminent domain powers to take land for the purpose of economic development.

Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, is pursuing an amendment to the state constitution that would do the same thing. If approved, it would go before the public in a general election.

Another bill would prohibit non-compete agreements with toll road companies. Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, said the bill is intended to prevent “gridlock by design,” which forces traffic off of free routes and onto toll roads.

Sponsored by Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, one other bill would require special districts to hold elections before eminent domain powers could be used.

Pommer’s bill – HB1003 – and Green’s bill – HB1116 – are in the House Transportation and Energy Committee. Gardner’s bill – HB1099 – and Hefley’s bill – HB1096 – are in the House State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee.

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