Colorado Editorials

The Gazette: Toll trolls jeopardize progress

Author: The Gazette Editorial Board - March 17, 2018 - Updated: March 17, 2018

If the public gets stuck with additional decades of gridlock between Colorado Springs and Denver, blame a handful of pandering politicians who sabotaged progress.

Gridlock through “The Gap” of I-25 between Monument and Castle Rock is considerably more than a mere inconvenience. It is dangerous.

Ambulances and other first responders get stuck in traffic, when seconds determine whether lives are saved. The stop-and-go congestion causes rear-end collisions. In 2016, a truck traversing the tight passageway hit and killed state trooper Cody Donahue as he conducted a stop.

Economically, “The Gap” holds back the Pikes Peak region. When traffic routinely jams between Denver and Colorado Springs, tourists avoid the trip. Home values are affected when prospective buyers consider the agony of the commute. The cost of transporting goods to market goes up when trucks cannot travel efficiently. Employers considering expansion into metropolitan Colorado Springs think twice, after seeing the condition of the freeway.

Decades overdue for expansion, we are almost there. State highway officials speak of beginning construction in the fall of 2018, and completing the project by 2021.

State and local officials have moved heaven and earth to speed the project, as population growth in Denver and the Springs has made the problem dire. Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Trump administration, and others have facilitated speedier environmental studies and approval of permits.

But we could blow it.

Throughout the country, interstate highway improvements are funded with local, state and federal money. The federal dollars are crucial. They typically determine where state dollars will go, as transportation officials want to combine resources to get the most efficient results.

Like it or not, tolls are part of the modern standard for obtaining federal money. In awarding federal grants, federal officials want to maximize the potential. They want users of highways to match some of the money.

Additionally, toll lanes create an advantage for people who absolutely, positively cannot miss a flight or show up late for work. Those with the greatest need to get someplace on time are given the option to buy their way out of traffic. Others have no obligation to pay the fee, yet benefit from traffic moving into toll lanes.

Good arguments can be made for and against tolls, but this much is not in dispute: to get a federal highway grant, the typical project must include tolls.

The El Paso County commissioners applied as the lead agency for a $65 million federal transportation grant. State transportation officials say the grant is essential to getting the project started in a timely fashion.

In applying for the grant, El Paso County Commission President Darryl Glenn signed a letter stating the request is to help “construct a tolled express lane in each direction” of The Gap. Less than two months later, he spearheaded a county resolution opposing the toll lanes. If he doesn’t want toll lanes, he should not have signed a letter claiming the opposite. Signatures mean something.

We worry the conflicting message could hurt our chance of receiving funds.

“If circumstances have changed in a manner that makes the application inaccurate and DOT is aware of those changes, they may factor that into selection decisions,” said Megan Sweeney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, in an email to The Gazette.

If the project obtains a grant, forget the idea of a bait-and-switch. The letter effectively binds the funds to toll lanes. Why wouldn’t it? The grant would be made on the basis of a promise made in writing.

“If the applicant proposed to change the project after it was selected but before entering into a grant agreement, the Department would consider those changes, but likely withdraw the award,” said Marianne McInerney, director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), in an article by CompleteColorado.com

Our own Rocky Scott, the Pikes Peak region’s representative on the Colorado Transportation Commission, said local political pandering to anti-toll sentiment threatens to delay or defeat the project.

“If our region insists upon a project that doesn’t meet the standards being applied successfully to everyone else, funding may not be available with the timing that addresses the urgency of the Gap problem. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all,” Scott said in a guest column for The Gazette.

Federal highway officials should know most in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region want this project and understand the value of a commitment made in writing. Don’t let local political shenanigans jeopardize funds for a project critical to all of Colorado.

Voters can and will hold accountable any politicians who disrupt highway expansion for expedient political gain. Stop the toll lanes, and we may get no lanes. People will die as a result, and we will suffer economically. Stop playing games, and ensure shovels break ground this year

The Gazette editorial board

The Gazette Editorial Board