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The Road to Nowhere

As highway money dries up, House District 18 battle heats up



The money is gone.

Just 10 months ago, Colorado's Department of Transportation updated its promise to spend $508 million voter-approved dollars on two key highway projects in El Paso County.

This week, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments was knocked cold when it was notified that the money -- earmarked to pay for Interstate 25 improvements and a Powers Boulevard expansion -- has been suspended for at least seven years.

Meanwhile, the Denver Metro area's massive T-REX I-25 highway-widening project has received an injection of a quarter of a billion in unexplained dollars.

The news is not good for Republican Dan Stuart, who is currently battling Democrat Michael Merrifield for the state House of Representatives. During the campaign, Stuart has highlighted the expertise he gained while serving for the past six years on the state transportation commission that oversees highway funding across Colorado.

In fact, Stuart has bragged that he has brought our fair share of transportation tax dollars home to El Paso County -- long a sore point among local political and business leaders and frustrated commuters, who gripe that El Paso and Teller County tax dollars have ended up paying for Denver-area highway projects.

Projects on hold

Three years ago, following a heavily promoted campaign led by Gov. Bill Owens, Colorado voters approved a statewide referendum called TRANS. The bond measure was designed to dispel the Denver-is-favored perception and promised funding for 24 highway projects all over the state.

Three of those projects were in El Paso County -- including $220 million to extend Powers Boulevard, $212 million to relieve congestion along I-25 and a $342-million project to widen I-25 from South Academy Boulevard to Briargate Parkway. The TRANS bond measure was designed to carve years off of the projects' estimated completion dates.

Currently, the I-25 widening project is nearly completed. But, as of this week, funding for the other two have officially been zeroed out by the Colorado Department of Transportation for at least seven years, said Fred Van Antwerp, director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, a consortium of government agencies in the region.

"We were told the TRANS money has been depleted, the economy is in the tank and there will be no new [Colorado general fund] money until 2009 or 2010," Van Antwerp said.

The shell game

When presented with these latest figures, Stuart maintained that, even though the $508 million in promised funds has been delayed for at least seven years, El Paso County will eventually receive the funds.

"The projects are committed, the funding has been committed," he said.

However, Stuart was unclear over another matter that has recently sparked interest among several board members of the PPACG, which this week honored Stuart for his six years of service representing El Paso County on the 11-member transportation commission.

Specifically, according to figures compiled by the state transportation department, Denver's massive T-REX highway project has received an additional $250 million over and above the amount that voters approved for the project in 1999.

Then, the state transportation department price-tagged the project -- which was later named T-REX -- at $594 million. As of this year, $849 million has been allocated to the project, according to the department's recent figures.

Stuart was unsure why T-REX has received a quarter billion dollars in additional funds, but maintained it is likely a result of inflation.

As for El Paso County's stalled projects, Stuart blamed the economy.

Any perception that El Paso County is still not getting its fair share of highway dollars, Stuart said, might be long-held, but is inaccurate.

"The reality is the funding is promised to these projects and because of the funding structure, the flow has slowed dramatically," Stuart said. "El Paso County will suffer dramatically and that is unfortunate because we need that funding and we need those projects to keep moving forward."

Is he a figurehead?

Stuart's opponent, Michael Merrifield, is not convinced.

During the campaign, Merrifield has hammered on his opponent, questioning Stuart's effectiveness as a transportation commissioner.

This week, when he learned of the latest delays to El Paso County's highway projects -- and of the unexplained additional quarter of a billion highway dollars going to Denver's T-REX project -- Merrifield was dumbfounded.

"If I were a Denver voter, I'd be happy to vote for Dan Stuart; in fact, I'd try to vote two or three times for Dan Stuart," Merrifield said of his opponent's claims of bringing the highway bacon home.

"My question is, as a commissioner does [Stuart] have any influence or is he just a figurehead? Either he rolls over for Gov. Owens and lets them funnel money back to the governor's pet project in Denver or he's an ineffective advocate for El Paso County."

What's on voters' minds

In addition to serving on the transportation commission, Stuart, a lawyer with a civil practice has also served on the Manitou Springs City Council, including four years as mayor.

Merrifield, a recently retired high-school teacher, is also a former member of Manitou Springs City Council and a national Sierra Club officer.

Two years ago, he lost a tight race against conservative Republican Dave Schultheis, after getting little support from the state Democratic Party in what was then a heavily Republican district.

The district's boundaries were redrawn last year and encompass much of downtown, the North End, the near south and west sides of Colorado Springs, as well as Manitou Springs.

Its residents are roughly evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, and the race is considered a tight one. Along with growth, education and insurance costs, transportation has been identified as a key issue of concern in this year's election.

Indeed, in his speech announcing his candidacy back in February, Stuart highlighted his six years serving on the transportation commission. The experience, he said, has given him "an understanding of the complex ways we fund transportation."

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