Colorado pulls plug on unsolicited I-25 North project proposal

Colorado transportation leaders have pulled the plug on an unsolicited proposal that aimed to speed up the building of tolled express lanes on Interstate 25, filling a roughly 23-mile gap north of the Denver suburbs.

Roadis USA, a division of a Spanish toll-road operator, led a team called I-25 Now that in early 2021 pitched its public-private partnership idea to the Colorado Department of Transportation. While CDOT has expanded I-25 in north metro Denver and has projects underway closer to Fort Collins, it has struggled to nail down the hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the final segments in between.

Roadis’ team said it could finish them — and do it much sooner.

CDOT, set to receive an infusion of state and federal money for its projects, recently added more work on the I-25 North corridor to its own priority project plan as it evaluated the alternative offered by Roadis. But Northern Colorado business groups and politicians who back those projects — many of them supportive of advancing the Roadis proposal — on Wednesday blasted the impending decision to shelve the outside pitch, saying progress has come too slowly.

“What I think is happening here is another smoke screen,” state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer said before the board of a CDOT enterprise arm received a briefing behind closed doors. She previously served as a Weld County commissioner and this month lost a close race for Congress.

“This bottleneck is a safety problem,” Kirkmeyer said of one I-25 segment. “There are crashes there all the time.”

State Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat, echoed some of her points.

“My ask is: Really, what’s the plan?” he said. “If it’s not through the P3” — shorthand for a public-private partnership — “then how is CDOT going to get this done?”

Karen Stuart, a state transportation commissioner who is vice chair of the board for CDOT’s Colorado Transportation Investment Office (CTIO), confirmed the decision to halt consideration of Roadis’ proposal in a statement.

“The CTIO Board has just heard from the I-25 Now Evaluation Panel that, after their careful consideration, we will not be moving forward with the I-25 Now Unsolicited Proposal,” Stuart said of the executive session. The board didn’t take a formal vote.

If Roadis USA’s name sounds familiar, it’s because the outfit has eyed other big partnerships locally. For years, it has tried to lease and manage E-470, a 47-mile toll road that rings most of metro Denver, but so far has been unsuccessful.

Roadis’ I-25 Now team proposed a roughly $1 billion project, with $350-500 million of upfront investment, according to an early conceptual presentation. It aimed to finish the remaining express-lane projects — between the Northwest Parkway and Colorado 56 — and would have tackled safety improvements in an existing express-lanes section in the north suburbs, a high-crash segment that concerns Mullica. It also would operate and maintain the entire corridor from U.S. 36 to Fort Collins.

A decision by CTIO’s board to move to the next phase of consideration would have resulted in a solicitation for competing proposals.

But CDOT leaders publicly have appeared hesitant to embrace the Roadis proposal, arguing that they are working on finding other ways to pay for the remaining sections. Stuart underlined that intention, saying: “CDOT has clearly identified an ongoing plan for multiple projects on I-25 North using funds from Colorado’s bipartisan infrastructure package, federal funds and toll revenues.”

In a reshuffling of the state’s 10-year priority transportation project list in September, CDOT added the expansion of a 7-mile segment of I-25 from Colorado 56 south to Colorado 66 in coming years. It committed nearly $200 million of the estimated $350 million cost, with toll revenue expected to cover the rest. Colorado 66 is where I-25 currently drops from three lanes to two going north.

The project list also now includes $110 million for the safety improvements between 84th and 104th avenues, along with several I-25 transit hubs.

But a large segment without express lanes remains unfunded.

Roadis USA president Michael Cheroutes, in barbed comments to the board prior to its executive session, suggested that CDOT leaders were failing to fulfill the legislative intent behind the creation of the CTIO, previously known as the High-Performance Transportation Enterprise.

It was created to find innovative funding solutions for important projects the state couldn’t otherwise afford. Cheroutes, in fact, was the HPTE’s first director, serving from 2010 to 2015. But Wednesday, he found himself at the losing end of one of its decisions.

“I’ve been around for a while, and I see the writing on the wall,” he said, adding: “Just for your own sakes and for the sake of the transportation system, I hope that you take a hard look at why you’re here and what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Later, Stuart said in her statement that CDOT and CTIO leaders aimed to deliver projects “in the most efficient and effective manner” and believed they could do so on the I-25 North corridor.

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