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El Paso County commissioners ratify grant application despite anti-toll stance

December 28, 2017 Updated: December 29, 2017 at 6:09 am
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Southbound traffic begins to build on Interstate 25 Thursday afternoon, Oct. 12, 2017, just before exit 172 near Larkspur, Colo. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

El Paso County does not plan to revise a federal grant application it submitted that proposes using toll roads to widen the Interstate 25 "Gap" from four to six lanes.

Though all five county commissioners have publicly opposed adding a toll lane to each side of the roughly 18-mile stretch from Monument to Castle Rock, county officials say any changes to the plan in the application would come after the project clears a federally required review process that's expected to be completed next year.

The application, submitted in early November, includes a letter signed by El Paso County Board of Commissioners President Darryl Glenn that states "the proposal is to construct a tolled express lane in each direction" of the Gap. Glenn has said he had no control over the letter's content and that the county was required to use a template dictated by the Colorado Department of Transportation, which has a policy that states toll lanes must be "strongly considered" for highway expansion projects.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted 4 to 0, with Longinos Gonzalez Jr. absent and excused, to approve the application just a week after finalizing an emergency resolution declaring their anti-toll stance.

The $65 million grant, requested from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program, is seen as a key piece of funding for the $350 million widening, which state transportation officials have said could be under construction late next year and completed in 2021 if all the money that's been identified for the project is secured.

The ratification resolution, like the emergency resolution passed last week, states the application "is not a grant agreement and therefore does not bind the board into accepting the INFRA grant if awarded."

If the application is successful, the county will work with CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to discuss the scope, schedule and financing for the project, County Engineer Jennifer Irvine told commissioners Thursday.

A public hearing would also be held before commissioners accept the grant.

"The process is very open and transparent in the event that this is awarded. Then we have a decision to make," said Glenn, who has lambasted The Gazette's coverage of the letter he signed. "I guarantee you I will be supporting my constituents regarding the toll."

The El Paso County Board of Commissioners' policy allows its president to sign grant applications without approval from the entire board, but stipulates grant applications must be placed on the board's agenda for ratification within 30 days of submittal.

County spokesman Dave Rose said in an email that the county "is not aware of any mechanism or procedure for resubmitting an application."

In addition to toll lanes, CDOT is considering adding general purpose lanes or doing nothing - both options that are being explored through a review process, required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), that's expected to be completed in the spring, Irvine told commissioners.

While the application states that the NEPA process is not yet complete, it cites only toll lanes for the widening.

Attached to the application are 24 letters of support from local governments, elected officials and other organizations and agencies with an interest in the project. More than a dozen of those letters, including one from Colorado Springs signed by Mayor John Suthers and another from the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority signed by PPRTA Board Chairman and City Council President Merv Bennett, specifically reference tolled or managed lanes.

Under the funding plan, the project would be paid for with the federal grant, $35 million in local contributions and $250 million in state money, most of which would come from a new law that will generate revenue through the sale of state-owned buildings.

At a meeting this month, a citizen accused the board of misleading the public because toll lanes were not mentioned in two project funding requests - one made by El Paso County and another made by the PPRTA - that voters approved in November. Fountain resident Deborah Stout-Meininger reiterated her point at Thursday's meeting, saying Glenn's decision to sign off on the application didn't represent the interest of county residents.

Ann Howe, who's running next year to succeed Glenn as District 1 commissioner, echoed Meininger's concern.

"Something as important as this, they need to read through and understand," Howe said after the meeting.

State transportation officials have said tolls are the best option for the widening. Adding such lanes has helped to reduce traffic on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder and on Interstate 70 eastbound between Idaho Springs and Empire Junction, according to CDOT research.

CDOT has not determined the price of the tolls, which would be used to pay for maintenance and future improvements along the corridor.

"There's a lot of moving parts to this projct that are stll going forward, and there are a lot of questions that are still unanswered," Commissioner Mark Waller, who has pushed local, regional and state leaders to come up with funding for the project, said after the meeting. "This is a serious public safety issue, and, for me, that seems to be getting lost in all of this."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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