El Paso County commissioners now are fighting proposed toll lanes on the Interstate 25 "Gap" just weeks after their county staff pitched the idea.
But commission President Darryl Glenn had signed a Nov. 2 letter for a $65 million federal grant application, saying the proposal "is to construct a tolled express lane in each direction" of the roughly 18-mile stretch from Monument to Castle Rock.
Asked Monday about the letter, which has commissioners' names on the letterhead, Glenn said it did not represent the board's endorsement or intent.
He said county staff told him the wording was "boilerplate language" often used in proposals by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Glenn said he now is pushing for an emergency resolution to "clarify" the board's opposition to the toll lanes.
The board will consider that resolution at its meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Centennial Hall, 200 S. Cascade Ave., said county spokesman Dave Rose.
CDOT for months has proposed expanding the Gap from two to three lanes in each direction by adding a pair of Express Lanes.
Public opposition to the idea only recently surfaced. The Gazette first reported on CDOT's proposed toll lanes in a Sept. 9 article on two ballot measures to generate local funding for the project.
All five commissioners now have expressed concern about the Express Lanes.
The plan won't be finalized until the Federal Highway Administration signs off on the project's environmental assessment in the spring, CDOT says.
But revising the grant application to remove toll lanes could hurt the chance of winning the award, Rose said by email Monday.
The county "would probably have to withdraw the application, and it's not known if an extension would be granted for modification," he said.
If the project funding, including that grant, is secured, construction could begin by late next year.
The $350 million widening would be partly paid with $35 million in local dollars and $250 million in state money, including revenue from sales of state buildings under a new law.
A resident accused commissioners at their Dec. 12 meeting of misrepresenting the plan to voters by not mentioning toll lanes in either funding request on the ballot.
Voters approved both measures, opting to provide the project at least $6 million in excess county revenues and $10 million in regional sales tax collections.
"That made a lot of people feel very betrayed," said Deborah Stout-Meininger, a Fountain resident. "They feel that they were not given the full information when they were voting on this ballot measure."
Glenn appeared rattled by her remarks and firmly stated his opposition to the tolls.
"It takes a lot to get a reaction out of me, but I want to be very clear - especially as hard as a lot of people worked to represent to the community on this particular ballot measure - I do not take it lightly when we are accused of misleading the public, especially when we are very clearly opposed to that particular proposal," he replied.
Commissioners Peggy Littleton and Longinos Gonzalez Jr. chimed in, saying they were not aware that tolling was part of the project plan.
Glenn later reiterated the board's opposition to tolls after he and fellow commissioners unanimously passed the county's 2018 budget, which includes another $1.5 million for the project.
But he declined to say Monday whether he objected to the grant application letter when it came across his desk.
"Whatever was there was interpreted in a different way from the intent of the board," Glenn said. "This is in no way representative of what we would agree to."
The 24-page application, submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program, does not distinguish toll lanes as an option.
Commissioner Mark Waller, who advocated for the ballot measures, said he did not see the letter before it was submitted.
Express Lanes added to other Colorado thoroughfares, including U.S. 36 from Denver to Boulder and Interstate 70 eastbound from Empire Junction to Idaho Springs, helped reduce traffic in all the lanes, CDOT research shows.
CDOT has not decided on toll rates, but that revenue would be used for maintenance and future improvements, not to widen the Gap.
Tolling proposals often have better odds of winning federal funds than projects that add general purpose lanes, said Rocky Scott, a member of the state's Transportation Commission whose district includes El Paso County.
A policy adopted by that commission in 2012 requires CDOT to strongly consider toll lanes and other "managed lanes" when planning highway expansions.
CDOT has said it also considered peak period shoulder lanes and more general purpose lanes for the Gap, but it found Express Lanes to be the best solution.
Despite citizen concerns, "there isn't any evidence yet that it is the wrong direction," Scott said.
"We need to give a serious well-supported response to those who have doubts," he said. "That's what's being done now."
Public meetings CDOT held in Castle Rock and Colorado Springs this month attracted hundreds of people, many of whom aired grievances about the proposed tolls.
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108