Photo Courtesy of CDOT
U.S. 36 corridor upgrades will include new lanes, bridges and a commuter bike lane.

The Colorado Dept. of Transportation last week finalized a controversial contract with private consortium Plenary Roads Denver to build the second phase of the U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project. The two-phase project expands and improves the main freeway between Denver and Boulder.

It adds a "managed lane" in each direction for bus rapid transit, high-occupancy vehicles and drivers willing to pay a toll along the 30-mile road. It also improves the existing non-tolled lanes, adds a commuter bike lane and creates one of the state's first diverging diamond interchanges.

The contract calls for Plenary to maintain the highway, including snow and ice removal for the next 50 years. In exchange, the consortium will collect tolls from the managed lanes during that time. Two lanes each way will not be tolled.

Plenary's tab for the design-build portion of the second phase is $120 million, plus nearly $54 million to pay back federal loans for the project. The total tab for U.S. 36 improvements is $425 million.

This project is the first highway public-private partnership in the state's history, and critics complain that key project provisions may have been withheld.

CDOT previously released an 80-page summary of the P3 contract but, until mid-February, had refused to reveal the entire 600-page contract, citing protection of proprietary elements. Two U.S. 36 public meetings in February drew raucous crowds of nearly 700 people concerned about the 50-year length of the contract, its risks, possible high tolls and a general wariness about handing over control of a public road to private interests. State lawmakers who also had been denied access to the contract chimed in. "We have a private company that will now be dictating what's going to happen on that highway," said Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville).

"There was a lot of misinformation out there. The contract is fine," says CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford. "It shifts risk and highway maintenance to the private sector and allows us to complete major improvements that otherwise wouldn't get done for 20 years. The lesson learned here is that we need to do a better job of educating the public—ahead of time—about the need for P3s and their benefits and how these projects won't get done without them."

Plenary Roads Denver is a consortium of infrastructure developer Plenary Group Pty. Ltd. and construction-services provider Transfield Services Ltd., with offices in Canada and Australia, and also includes design-build team members Granite Construction, Watsonville, Calif.; Ames Construction, Aurora, Colo.; HDR Inc., Omaha, Neb.; and investment banker Goldman Sachs.