DALLAS - Colorado could intervene in the sale or lease of public toll roads to private developers under a bill passed by the House last week.
HB 1139, sponsored by Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, and Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, was sent to the Senate on a 62-1 vote Friday.
The bill creates a process through which the state's Colorado Tolling Enterprise would evaluate the proposed sale or lease of a toll road by a public tolling authority. If the enterprise decides that the turnpike should be operated publicly, the state would have authority to issue bonds to purchase the highway.
The state would also have the right to issue bonds to purchase a share of the tollway in partnership with a private operator.
The bill addresses issues that came up in the $603 million, 99-year lease of the Northwest Parkway north of Denver to Portuguese-Brazilian conglomerate Brisa/CCR last November. The Northwest Parkway Public Highway Authority, whose bonds had been downgraded to junk, needed to defease the debt in the face of potential default.
The authority will continue to exist as a legal entity that is expected to regain operational control of the toll road once the lease expires a century from now. The authority's board of directors will continue oversight of the project, with annual reports to the legislature on operations and finances.
The agreement also provides committed funding for a potential 2.3 mile extension of the toll road to State Highway 128 in Broomfield.
Brisa/CCR is shorthand for two companies that formed a partnership to operate the tollway. Brisa Auto-Estradas de Portugal is based in Lisbon. The partner agency, Companhia de Concessoes Rodoviarias is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"I don't like infrastructure in the U.S. being run by foreign companies or foreign countries," said Rep. Gwen Green, D-Golden, who is vice chair of the House Transportation and Energy Committee. "If you have a public authority, you have more protection of the public interest."
Green said she opposed the Northwest Parkway as not financially viable before it was ever built. But now that the construction and lease are done, she is turning her attention to the last leg of a controversial loop around the Denver area. To close the loop, a tollway is proposed between Northwest Parkway to the north and Colorado 470, a toll-free highway, to the south. The section of toll road would run through Denver's western suburb of Golden, which has fought the highway.
"The studies have not indicated a need for it, and the locals are concerned it's going to destroy their way of life," Green said.
Colorado's bill has no provisions for a moratorium on private ownership of toll roads. In Texas, a two-year moratorium on new private toll roads is in effect under a bill passed in May 2007. Texas' SB 792 created a special committee to study the issues during the moratorium, with the first meeting on Feb. 5.
The private financing issue is just one facet of Colorado's struggle to finance highways in the growing state. Green said the Colorado Department of Transportation does not appear to have the revenue to build the connector through Golden. Nonetheless, she said the state should be involved in any decisions on highway finance.
"While Colorado is not responsible for the bonds, I am concerned about the connection between a privately operated highway and the state," she said.