3/23/2005

Toll-road plan bites the dust: Rocky Mountain News (Denver CO), 3/23/05

Senate committee indefinitely delays 'Super Slab' bill

By Kevin Flynn

Lawmakers on the Senate Transportation Committee were greeted by about 750 angry but well-mannered protesters from the plains - many of whom arrived in a school bus convoy from towns such as Peyton, Calhan and Ellicott - and voted 6-1 to postpone House Bill 1030 indefinitely.

That's General Assembly-speak for killing the bill.

"We hope we'll be able to work with the committee to develop some sort of legislation that will protect the landowners' rights," a jubilant Marsha Looper, of Calhan, said after the vote. She was one of many organizers who helped assemble the large public response.

She said the Eastern Plains Coalition, an umbrella for the various groups fighting the toll road, would continue to meet.

It was by far the largest crowd to come to the Capitol on a single bill in the living memories of numerous Statehouse old-timers. Organized in large part over the Internet in just the past three weeks, the crowd represented at least six of the seven counties through which Wells filed a 12-mile-wide, 210-mile-long claim for a superhighway corridor 20 years ago.

After Wells told the committee his highway and express railroad corridor would bring traffic relief to inner cities by removing through trucks and coal trains, those who live out on the plains urged the committee to keep the city in the city and leave the open country alone.

Also riding high was emotion over a private company such as Wells' Front Range Toll Road Co. having the right to condemn private property for the road - an issue not even addressed in the bill, but which Wells has via a 19th century statute that helped open up mining roads

"We're ranchers on the Colorado plains, and now we're forced to take a stand," said an emotional Chuck Kovanda of Keenesburg, recounting how his forebears homesteaded their initial 160 acres, fought battles with Indians and fought in the nation's wars.

"And to make it worse," he said, motioning to Wells behind him, "he's a dude!"

What led to the defeat of the bill, which last month flew through the House 62-3, was concern over such issues as the lack of public input into planning major projects such as the toll road.

Steve Durham, a former legislator representing cable magnate John Malone, told the committee that Malone and his wife bought 65,000 acres of open space in Elbert County with the intent of preserving the area. The toll road would slice through it.

"A project like this was not likely envisioned when the statute was written," said Durham of the 1882 law last revised in 1891. Rules of public projects have changed immensely since then. "This bill completely overlooks the necessity of modern review policies."

A few in the crowd wore cowboy hats and pointed boots - some fresh polished and others dusty. Some wore T-shirts and sweatshirts sporting anti-toll-road slogans. Two hours before the hearing, about 500 of them rallied on the Capitol's west steps to set their resolute mood in granite.

Only about 220 could fit into the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Capitol's largest meeting room, filling it to overflow capacity. Three spillover rooms were set up on the third floor and the basement with piped-in audio from the hearing.

Given that Wells last month estimated only about 200 property owners might be affected - an estimate he now says is outdated - there were nearly four times that many people out to protest his plan.

Sen. Stephanie Takis, the committee chairwoman, presided firmly over the 5 1/2-hour hearing. After the vote, she said she would ask the joint House-Senate Transportation Legislation Review Committee to take up the contentious issues raised by private toll roads this summer.

Only bill sponsor Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, voted against postponing it. Sen. Bob Hagedorn, also D-Aurora, moved for the postponement.

Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Sedalia, asked most of the critical questions of Wells, noting that other private entities with condemnation power, such as utility and communications companies, nevertheless have government regulators overseeing their operations. The private toll road would not.

Wells sat in a front row with a partner and some advisers, arguing near the beginning for the approval of the bill and then listening to dozens of farmers, ranchers, horse breeders, scouting camp leaders and rural residents condemn his 20-year dream of an eastern Front Range bypass route.

Wells remained seated after the vote while others left, and offered no comment.

The bill would have modernized the way tolls are set on private roads and aligned the Wells plan with the rest of the state's toll collection enforcement system. But it also would have authorized more liberal methods of selling off the road's assets, making it more attractive to investors.

Critics were suspicious of the provision and argued that much more public disclosure of the proposal was needed before the first rancher or homeowner was asked to sell out for the road.

Noting that Wells' proposed highway was to run down the center of a two-mile wide open-space corridor, John Byrnes, of Weld County, voiced what many feared with so much territory under corporate control.

"Many of us think the toll road is just a smoke screen for a land grab of biblical proportions," he said.


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