By Jim Reed

The Colorado Department of Transportation recently entered a public-private partnership (P3) with Plenary Roads Denver, a six-company consortium, to design, rebuild, finance, operate and maintain the U.S. 36 highway corridor between Denver and Boulder.

Shep, photo credit: Boulder Daily CameraThe agreement is the second part of a two-phase project that together will rebuild the entire 21-mile highway with a new express lane in each direction for bus rapid transit, carpools, and tolled single-occupant vehicles; two reconstructed free, general-purpose lanes in each direction; a new commuter bikeway; along with improvements to transit facilities, road shoulders, bridges and electronic signs.

The P3 aspect of the project has been controversial, with public concern over the appropriate roles of the public and private sectors in the arrangement, the lack of enough public input on this new type of financing arrangement, how tolls are assessed and used, and the behind-closed-doors negotiation process.

The Colorado Legislature enabled this type of agreement with passage of the FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery) transportation legislation in 2009, which among other provisions, created the High Performance Transportation Enterprise within CDOT to seek innovative means to more efficiently finance key transportation projects. A total of 33 states and Puerto Rico have passed enabling legislation to allow for similar arrangements. Over a 25-year period, more than 100 transportation projects worth more than $60 billion have been built in the United States using P3s.

The current proposal to toll (for solo drivers only) the express lanes of U.S. 36, harks back to the ‘50s and ‘60s when the Denver-Boulder corridor was entirely built and paid for as a toll road. Along with the toll road came Shep “the turnpike dog.”

 Old-timers relate that a stray shepherd dog wandered into the area where the toll booths were being built in the early 1950s. Eventually named Shep, the canine was adopted by toll workers and became a fixture for motorists as they stopped to pay the 25-cents toll. Shep’s presence apparently made toll-paying fun, especially for children who would bring treats for Shep or persuade their parents to give an extra nickel for Shep’s food and upkeep. 

Alas, Shep passed in 1964. Highway workers dug a grave in the U.S. 36 right-of-way adjacent to the Broomfield exit and a local cemetery donated a headstone. Shep’s grave site was an attraction of some renown, being listed on the Roadside America website. Shep’s remains had to be moved in 2009 to a local museum to make way for the planned road widening. In the spirit of honoring Shep, who lives on with his own Facebook page, perhaps CDOT or Plenary Roads Denver could have a contest to find a new mascot for the newly reconstructed road to ease the angst of toll-paying motorists.

Click here for additional NCSL information on transportation public-private partnerships.

Jim Reed directs the NCSL Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

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