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April 17, 2020
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Colorado’s master plan

The state of Colorado is to remain at the vanguard of the US market as the High Performance Transportation Enterprise (HPTE) gets on with business. By P3 Bulletin’s David Keniry
Colorado’s master plan

Following the Covid-19 outbreak Governor Jared Polis made Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) projects essential which coupled with the lower traffic volume is helping get projects done across the state. 

Plenary Roads is taking advantage of lower traffic volumes and is doing some concrete panel replacements right now on US 36 which will be done in 50 days instead of six-months. While Kiewit Meridiam Partners is getting paving done on Central 70 which they would have had to wait until May to start on because there contract work stipulates they have to pave at night. However because traffic volumes are so low they can now pave during the day in April. 

HPTE director Nick Farber told P3 Bulletin: “Obviously traffic is down on our express lanes, we are hoping when the economy starts up people will start using express lanes again.”

HPTE, an independent division of the state within CDOT, are working closely with the Governor’s office on the Covid-19 recovery both from a state stimulus and federal stimulus perspective, with an announcement expected in the coming days.

Managing scrutiny

For over 10-years Colorado has been a benchmark for public-private partnerships (P3) delivery as Coloradoans embraced the model at state and city level with the HPTE a central factor in that success. 

Officials with their political leaders became essential participants at P3 conferences and hubs as the wider market looked up to the Rocky Mountains for a roadmap for their own projects and programs. 

However following some mixed signals and shaky ground, litigious setbacks on landmark projects in Colorado have resulted in intense scrutiny of the P3 model within the state and has threatened to take the shine off this trailblazer in infrastructure investment.

Last month Governor Polis signed a bill which requires that HPTE “include information about its public-private partnerships in its annual report to the legislative committees of the house of representatives and the senate that have jurisdiction over transportation”. (The bill text is available here

Farber explains the legislature wanted to make sure they were getting all the information they needed and the public was getting all the information they needed. 

“We had a lot of lessons learned on US 36 about how to engage the public on public-private partnerships and we imparted those lessons on Central 70.”

Farber joined HPTE in 2011 as operations manager and became the deputy director in 2015 working side-by-side with the previous two directors, Mike Cheroutes and David Spector. Piper Darlington has recently stepped into the operations manager role. 

HPTE are one of the few divisions of the state that has to put out an annual report and will do it for the upcoming report. Farber said: “We were already reporting on it anyway so we felt like the bill was a no-brainer and we supported it.” 

“In these kinds of procurements you need to be as transparent and open as possible. As long as it doesn’t hurt the competitive process and we felt it didn’t at all,” he adds.

HPTE’s mission is to search out innovative ways to finance projects to help Colorado fulfil its commitment to increase travel choices and 2020 has seen that search accelerate. 

A growing pipeline

The HPTE team are conducting analysis and traffic & revenue studies on three projects right now; I-270, C-470 (Wadsworth to I-70), and I-70 Floyd Hill,. 

Farber notes these projects are still in planning phases and in six-eight months will have a better idea of how they are going to procure those projects. The advisory team is in place and the agency is likely to use the market sounding process again to drum up market interest.

In February HPTE published the Express Lanes Master Plan (ELMP) in coordination with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and other regional partners. The ELMP will serve as a comprehensive, long-term, and strategic road map for HPTE. The ELMP identified and produced technical and financial information about potential Express Lane projects throughout the state so that these projects could be prioritized for future study and development.

The process leading up to the plan was an informal or miniaturized version of the environmental process Farber explains that helps CDOT to know which projects can use express lanes. Each project is analysed to see if there is a case for P3. 

For the most recent C-470 Express Lanes Project, HPTE didn’t do P3 as it did not have “the innovation and complexity that the industry are looking for” and was not considered a big enough project (Flatiron/Aecom, design-build, USD276m).

As part of the public outreach for the ELMP, four townhalls were conducted around the state and Farber noted there was a lot of acceptance of express lanes where they were already. But areas where they are under construction or did not have them yet people were sceptical of them.

“I think when people use them they see the benefit of it. Research across the country has shown that, people don’t understand them until they use them.”

If the industry have any questions on projects on the plan they can reach out and the HPTE would be happy to talk about it.

“It is part of the reason we updated out unsolicited proposal process. We wanted to pair the unsolicited proposal process with the express lanes master plan coming out.”

Since the publication of the unsolicited proposal policy document in November, HPTE is already seeing the fruits of their labor with 12 unsolicited proposals received with mostly road ideas, but also one transit and one technology idea.

“The three proposals we are moving forward with are three projects the state feels are a benefit to the state in terms of transportation”, Farber notes.

“That is not to say the other nine ideas were bad,” he adds. 

Some companies submitted multiple ideas on a different corridor, while some were just rejected because of technicalities and did not follow the guidelines so are to come back with an updated response. 

“We are not just looking for roads ideas. We are looking for ideas that are important to CDOT, for instance that are in our 10-year plan or Express Lanes Master Plan. And that have some sort of revenue generating opportunity.”

The market is engaged

The high profile setbacks on Denver’s Great Hall Project, RTD’s Eagle Project and US 36 resulted in some soul searching (and rebranding) in Colorado on the merits of P3. 

However Farber states bidders take projects on a case by case basis and there has been no immediate impact on competitiveness since the City of Denver announced it was to cancel a P3 contract with Ferrovial-led Great Hall Partners in August. The contract withdrawal was resolved last month.

While HPTE has not gone out to bid yet since the fallout at Denver International Airport, Farber notes Denver and the City's Office of Performance Based Infrastructure are still moving ahead with the National Western Center Triangle P3, with the market still engaged on that project.

He concludes the “industry judges each project on its own merits”.

As the Great Hall dispute was being resolved, Ferrovial (Cintra) submitted an unsolicited proposal to HPTE. That proposal passed the initial threshold review. 

A testament to the enduring appeal of investing in a rapidly growing Colorado.

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