CDOT chief: Forget the Feds, we’re on our own in Colorado |

CDOT chief: Forget the Feds, we’re on our own in Colorado

Caddie Nath
Summit Daily News
Don Hunt

Friday, Colorado Department of Transportation director and part-time Frisco resident Don Hunt sat down with the Summit Daily to talk tolling, truck prohibitions and a $10-billion high-speed rail on I-70.

Summit Daily News: Where does I-70 fall on the priority list for CDOT?

Don Hunt: Well, it’s pretty important to me, because I drive it all the time. (CDOT’s) overall budget has fallen over the past five years from about $1.6 billion to about $1.1 billion. That’s pushed all of our capacity capability out of our budget for building new projects. At this point, other than maybe a windfall here and there, our budget is under $50 million a year for new capacity. Unfortunately, some of the most important projects where there’s congestion really haven’t been touched, and the I-70 corridor is one of those, where we’ve been studying it 10 years or 20 years and now the state highway fund is unable to add capacity on I-70. It remains a high priority in my mind, the governor’s mind, the transportation commission’s mind and it’s a matter of how we go forward to find the money to make some things happen.

SDN: How do you envision that process taking place? The problem is there, but money’s not. How does that hurdle get crossed?

DH: That’s a big question. We want to look at what we have and really try to do more, do everything we can with money we have. Part of that is innovation and stronger management to get money out of our overhead and into construction. That is, in the short run, what’s going to help I-70.

SDN: Will tolling be a part of long-term solutions on I-70?

DH: There are about 9,000 center-line miles of highway in the state and we need to maintain that. We spend about $700 million (a year) on maintenance. It looks to me like we need about another $300 million per year just to stabilize our highway system. We’re down to a 50 percent “good and fair” road condition. So, $300 million a year. What do Coloradans want? Are we satisfied with letting the condition of those roads continue to slip? The spending power of the gas tax is lower every year. It’s been the same, 40 cents a gallon for 20 years and it has the purchasing power of half, or less. Not anytime soon, but it’s kind of a going-out-of-business model for state highway systems, under the current funding mechanism.

Then (there’s) new capacity. Colorado’s going to grow from 5 million people to 7 million people, they say, by 2030. That’s going to create more congestion. We don’t have any money for new capacity. As a state, how critical is it for us to find new ways to fund the highway system?

Without a doubt, unless we hear something different from our voters, tolls are going to have to be a big part of what we do. I think we have an informal policy right now, since I’ve come aboard, if we’re going to add a lane we have to look at tolling that additional lane and that would include the I-70 corridor.

If we have free lanes right now, we’re trying to keep them free. If we add lanes, that’s where we’re going to toll.

SDN: Is the high-speed rail or Advanced Guideway System (AGS) still a priority and what’s being done to pursue transit solutions?

DH: We’re absolutely committed to the AGS, it’s in the environmental impact statement. We’re spending a couple million dollars on the study over the next 18 months. We’re going to reach out to industry, companies that are building (high-speed rail) systems and engage them as part of the study. But I don’t want to kid you, the numbers that float around for an AGS system are huge. They dwarf our budget. We have a $1 billion budget and it’s $10 or $20 billion for an AGS system. It’s hard for me to believe in the near term we’ll be able to find a way to do that. We’ll try.

SDN: What’s going on with the private company that submitted a proposal for I-70?

DH: Parson’s Transportation is one of the major engineering and construction management companies in the U.S. They’ve submitted what we call an unsolicited proposal to a subsidiary of CDOT that is better set up to handle private proposals. It’s their job to screen that proposal and determine its practicality and then come to the rest of CDOT and say, let’s figure out a way to move forward or we don’t think this is feasible, let’s tell them to go away. They have decided to evaluate the proposal … and by the end of the year they’ll announce whether it’s feasible or not. If so, then the competition (will be allowed) to bid on the project. At that time, the details will come out.

SDN: Is CDOT exploring a truck ban on I-70 on peak Sunday afternoons? Is that a realistic solution?

DH: As far as I’m concerned a prohibition of trucks on the most congested times of this corridor is on the table and has to be considered. The trucking industry feels that that is much too (difficult) for someone who is moving goods coast to coast. But we have to look at it. I’m not saying we’re going to do it, but I do think heavy commercial vehicles are part of the challenge we have.

SDN: Are there conversations on the national or state levels to address the funding situation? Is there any initiative on the horizon to fund transportation?

DH: My message to everyone right now is, just forget about the federal government. For us to sit around and think we have to wait for them to help is probably not in Colorado’s interests. I think we need to take care of our own challenges and our own problems. But transportation, no doubt, is one of the major issues on Gov. Hickenlooper’s agenda for the next couple of years.

The next thing the governor wants to do is a statewide civic engagement process. It would start right about the first of the year. (It was done in Utah) and brought people together from all over the state for meetings and tried to drive the process past ideologies and past preconceptions and explain to people: This is what we get if we don’t do anything, if we don’t change our taxing structure. Through the early part of next year, I think we plan to use that civic engagement process to start talking about transportation and what the future for Colorado is.

The last thing Gov. Hickenlooper wants to do is ask people about new taxes in the middle of a very deep recession. We’re spending every effort we can in the next year to improve state government, to build better effectiveness, to help restore trust in government. It’s our government, let’s try and make it work as well as we can.

(Recently), we asked the tough question (of the public) … what’s your overall approval rating of CDOT and everything it does? And 78 percent stated that they approved of the job that CDOT is doing. We really get the word out there and really work hard. We need to do better, but I think that’s a big part of why people think we’re at least trying.

SDN: We’ve seen a steady improvement on what CDOT offers information-wise over the last few years.

DH: I want a smart-phone app and I want to test it in the I-70 corridor and I want to be able to punch in where I am and where I’m going and it’s going to tell me the best time to leave. It will never be perfect, but if you can keep the flow relatively steady it should really helpful. And then we can connect people (who) don’t want to drive two hours right now with what (they) can do. It will bring up your dinner options and recreational options to kill a couple hours in Summit or Eagle.

(The smart phone app will likely be available by the first half of next year, CDOT officials said.)

Prior to his appointment to the role of CDOT executive director, Hunt spent the better part of his career in the private sector working on transportation and urban projects. Most recently he was president of the Antero Company, a project development and management firm. He has lived in Colorado for 28 years and currently lives part-time in Frisco.

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