Road rage on the Front Range
By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House
Momentum is building for the construction of a controversial, 10-mile toll road through a wildlife refuge outside of Denver. Embroiled in the road row are warring counties, a powerful mining company and one man obsessed with asphalt.
Now that it seems the road may become a reality, the question that remains largely unanswered is, who is this parkway supposed to benefit?
The Jefferson Parkway would run roughly northeast from Colorado 93, north of Golden, to Colorado 128 near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. Its construction would supposedly improve “regional connectivity” by bringing closer to completion the elusive “loop” around metro Denver.
What the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority (JPPHA) calls the “Beltway To Tomorrow” has been something of a pet project for Jefferson County Commissioner and parkway board chairman, Kevin McCasky. For years he has argued that, because Jefferson County (JeffCo) charges no general sales tax, the road is key to his county’s economic growth. The authority’s report rationalizing the parkway’s construction links a number of “approved and proposed activity centers” that would be built alongside the road.
The latest proposed route is only possible with the Highway Authority's purchase of a small portion of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The $2.8 million sale would mean paving a 300-foot wide, 3.5-mile-long piece of the refuge. Late last week, JPPHA expressed its intent to buy the parcel of land.
No one has yet discussed the impact the four-lane, high-speed roadway would have on resident wildlife including deer, jackrabbits, painted turtles and rattlesnakes. This is a unique area of wetlands, grasslands, shrublands and woodlands, that has just begun to recover from the indignities of the arms race. Paving part of it before it has a chance to fully recover is a disservice to all Coloradans.
While neither Boulder nor Golden truly want the tollway, the new route is less controversial because it allays some of the angst expressed by the two cities, making the $204 million road more attractive to private bidders who would construct and manage it.
The former route along a northern section of Colorado Highway 93 was fought bitterly by Boulder County, which was worried about development pressing up against its border, and by Golden, which feared increased congestion. While the new route still links the toll road to Highway 93, which runs through Golden, officials there have been enticed by incentives JPPHA has been dangling in front of them. JeffCo has suggested that millions of dollars for improvements and rerouting of existing roads in Golden may come their way if city officials green-light the new toll-road route.
What has hushed Boulder is a deal that’s harder to understand. There is a one-mile-square wedge of land that borders the southwest edge of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge called “Section 16.” The surface rights to the 640-acre plot are owned by the Colorado State Land Board. The mineral rights to Section 16 have been leased since 1992 to LaFarge, a manufacturer of construction products. LaFarge has an active permit to unearth the estimated 15 million tons of underground gneiss, a type of rock used in concrete and asphalt.
Boulder has agreed to drop its opposition to the toll road if Section 16 is acquired and preserved as open space. The land board, which uses the revenue from the mineral rights’ lease for public education, may be convinced to sell Section 16 for $10 million if it secures another piece of land with mineral rights to lease. The land board will also only sell if it is convinced that the open space designation will end the fighting between the counties. JeffCo would pitch in $5 million toward the sale, and the other half would have to come from the city and county of Boulder.
Of course, liberating Section 16 means that the mineral rights must also be acquired. If gneiss is worth $30 per ton, there’s potentially $450 million worth of mineable materials underground there. Nevertheless, LaFarge has expressed interest in being bought out for a rumored $6.6 million, a price which may come down if the company foresees a potential PR windfall (i.e. ‘miner devoted to preserving green space’).
That brings the price of one-square-mile of land, adjacent to property that until recently contained weapons-grade plutonium, to $16.6 million. Curiously, if the sale does not go through, LaFarge has said it will start mining Section 16 in 2012 (after nearly 20 years of non-activity there).
No doubt Boulder appears stuck in a Catch 22--it couldrefuse to take part in the Section 16 sale and risk both having a huge quarry scar the landscape, and having JeffCo revert to its original toll-way route which would straddle the border between the two counties, possibly opening the door to undesirable development.
If the tollway as it’s now being proposed goes forward, two stakeholders clearly stand to benefit: JeffCo and LaFarge. Boulder will pay millions of dollars to buy a small piece of land in a county other than its own, and will hope the mineral rights are subsequently secured. Golden will withdraw opposition on the promise it will gets some kickbacks someday.
A truce is great, in theory, but this elaborate trade-off scheme is costly and risky, and it perpetuates sketchy politics in order to get public works projects done in Colorado. McCasky is either chasing a legacy, or is misguided by a Field of Dreams build-it-and-they-will-come delusion. (We have to look no further than the financially-beleaguered Northwest Parkway to learn a lesson about how most people, especially in an economic downturn, are not willing to pay for a shortcut.)
This tollway is a bad deal for Colorado, and it’s time for Front Range cities to call the bluff.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.
Image of Rocky Flats courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service.