Toll project in path of wrath: Denver (CO) Post, 3/22/05

Rapid growth swells corridor's population

By Chuck Plunkett and Jeffrey A. Roberts

Hundreds of people, many waving signs, gathered at the state Capitol in Denver today to protest plans for a $2 billion high-speed toll road running parallel to Interstate 25.

The Senate transportation committee was scheduled to hear public testimony on the issue at 2 p.m. today.

When the mastermind behind the proposed Front Range Toll Road pitched his project to Colorado legislators and the public last month, he suggested its impact would be minimal, affecting only about 200 property owners.

He has grown to regret that representation, which he based on data he amassed nearly 20 years ago, when he first filed with the state for the opportunity to build the system.

Hundreds of residents in dozens of town meetings in the 210-mile project's path have called him on it.

"I shouldn't have used a number," said Ray Wells, who heads the Front Range Toll Road Co.

A Denver Post analysis of 2000 census data - already 5 years old and not accounting for the explosive growth within several areas of the toll road's path - shows that at least 74,000 people live in the project's corridor.

Compared with the Denver metro area, the population is relatively sparse, considering those people live inside an area of about 2,400 square miles. The Post's review - corroborated by an analyst at the Denver Regional Council of Governments - even reveals a handful of vast, wide-open spaces.

But the number and location of people also make it clear that far more than 200 property owners will have to give up their land if the toll road is built.

Wells said his engineers are studying the population, too, but he hasn't updated his estimate of the number of property owners who might fall in the path of his project.

"All I know is, at this stage, I'm very comfortable that we're not going through any subdivisions," said Wells, who has been called "The Godfather" of private, special district developments.

Wells and his investors have earmarked a 12-mile-wide corridor in which he wants to build a 660-foot-wide road and rail system that would combine a four-lane toll road, rail and infrastructure for power and telecommunications.

The toll road and rail system would run from Pueblo to Fort Collins as an alternative to congested Interstate 25.

On Monday, Wells' company released a survey of 12 Front Range counties - including Elbert, Weld, Adams and Pueblo - that shows 51 percent support the project and 18 percent oppose it. "Following a discussion of the toll road," support rose to 69 percent, according to Ciruli Associates, which conducted the survey Wells commissioned March 14-17.

The survey has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Wells hopes that the state's Senate Transportation Committee today will approve a bill that would streamline how toll rates are set. His opponents plan to fill the committee chambers.

Cable television magnate John Malone, who owns 65,000 acres in Elbert County, sent a letter to the Transportation Committee last week opposing the project.

Malone's property is devoted to raising cattle and preserving open space. On Monday, officials confirmed that Malone has hired a team of lobbyists to oppose the road as planned.

Malone retained Peter Minahan and his firm, Colorado Communique Inc., and lobbyists Steve Durham and Leo Boyle.

When government entities undertake condemnation proceedings, the process is accompanied by financial analyses and public hearings, Durham said. But the toll road bill makes it easier for private entities to pursue what he calls the government's "nuclear weapon" - the power of condemnation - without public scrutiny.

Malone believes there should be a buffer of open space next to densely developed Front Range communities, Minahan said.

"The location of such a major project should not be left to a private enterprise, as it impacts in a very major way the lives, fortunes and environment we share," Malone wrote to lawmakers. "A 'Great Wall' would severely divide the county, adversely affecting lives and property values," he said.

Malone's objections ring true with Jackie Johnson, who raises miniature donkeys and keeps llamas and an adopted mustang on 66 acres in Elbert County.

Johnson and her husband, Milt, bought the property six years ago.

"This is everything to us," Jackie Johnson said.

Many residents in Wells' path question his use of the term "affected." Even if the trucks and cars and trains aren't running through their property, they say, the proximity of such a project would forever alter their quality of life.

Wells argued last week that the area already is experiencing rapid growth, and his road hasn't been the cause.

And, Wells says, the toll project would help alleviate the congestion, rail traffic and pollution of I-25, which runs through a corridor populated by some 2.5 million people.

"It would be absolutely ridiculous if I said there is absolutely nobody that would ever be affected," Wells said.

But not everyone in the path is concerned. Oliver Cook, 55, was born and raised in Elbert County, and he says he could leave it.

The character of the place hasn't been the same for years, he says. There are so many newcomers, and they are so mobile, that he guesses he doesn't know 90 percent of those in his community anymore.

"As long as they give me fair market value," Cook said. "Granted, it's pretty out here, and I wouldn't want to see it destroyed.

"But I can go someplace else that's quiet."

Denver Post: www.denverpost.com