An artist's rendering of the Interstate 70 expansion project, which will widen a 10-mile stretch of the highway in northeast Denver. (POITRA/CDOT)

During the 2018 and 2019 elections, voters in Colorado considered a number of ballot initiatives seeking to fund the renewal of our state’s transportation infrastructure. Some of those proposals would have raised taxes, others didn’t, but all of them failed. 

It’s clear from this that Coloradans lack confidence in the state government’s ability to prudently invest their tax dollars in transportation projects. Instead of ignoring voters’ concerns or circumventing our state’s constitution to pass new gas “fees” without voter approval, our first task should be to assure Coloradans that the state government is up to the task of renewing our transportation infrastructure.

That effort has to start by addressing a culture at the Colorado Department of Transportation that has fostered huge cost overruns, late projects, and a lack of accountability to the very people the department is supposed to serve. 

Colorado state Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction

The department’s poor track record is largely the result of a dramatic shift in the way it awards contracts to engineering and construction firms, especially for some of the state’s largest and most costly projects.

Instead of awarding contracts competitively to the contractor who offers to do a project at the lowest price, CDOT has taken to using non-competitive awards, which benefit a small number of out-of-state, multinational construction engineering companies.

More recent examples include the ongoing Central 70 project on Interstate 70, which is already undergoing significant cost overruns; improvements on C-470 at a cost of $210 million and two years late; and the I-25 North project whose project parameters have changed wildly and is now projected to cost an additional $300 million. 

This practice has been detrimental to local contractors, most of whom are extremely well-qualified and whose low overhead allows them to offer the taxpayer the best price on just about any job. 

CDOT’s own data shows that $3.7 billion taxpayer dollars were awarded to the same two out-of-state contractors over the last eight years. That’s 81% of the non-competitive contracts the department awarded in the same period. Virtually all of the projects contracted to these two firms were over budget and late.

A contractor recently filed a request under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) to see by what criteria CDOT chooses these contractors when not using a low-bid system. He shared the request with me and was given pages and pages of redaction and no explanation.

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It’s easy to see: Something is rotten with CDOT.

The overuse of non-competitive contracting has also dramatically increased CDOT’s reliance on external engineering consultants. Since part of the non-competitive contracting model is that construction engineering firms take on both the design and construction functions, what was once an internal CDOT responsibility — design and engineering — is mostly being farmed out to external consultants. 

Numbers I’ve received from the Legislative Council, the research arm of the Colorado General Assembly, show that Colorado is spending well in excess of $200 million annually on external engineering consultants. If we compare that figure with our neighboring states, we find that Oklahoma has the next highest external engineering costs, but still spends $100 million less than Colorado. 

We are witnessing a brain drain in our state’s transportation agency that is diverting vast sums of money away from transportation projects and into the pockets of engineering consultants, many of whom are former CDOT employees.

In the state Senate, I’ve introduced a measure, Senate Bill 165, to restore transparency and accountability to CDOT’s contracting procedures.

First, my bill would make competitive contracting CDOT’s default contracting model. This is the classic procurement method that most of us are familiar with. It’s transparent, it’s fair, and it’s competitive, meaning the taxpayer is guaranteed to get the best price. 

Second, when CDOT actually needs to use noncompetitive contracting for a complex project, my bill would allow for that, provided the department is transparent about the criteria it is using to select contractors and that the project can be completed faster, at a lower cost, or to a higher standard. 

Finally, my bill would make sure that our local contractors have a fair shot at competing for the state’s largest transportation projects. If a contractor can demonstrate their strong performance on other jobs at the county or municipal level, or in other states, CDOT can’t reject them just because they haven’t done similar work for the department specifically.

This bill is not about attacking CDOT or dismissing the notion that we need to invest in our transportation infrastructure. Rather, it is about demonstrating to Colorado voters that state government can be trusted with the critical task of revitalizing our roads, bridges, and highways. 

I disagree with suggestions that we can avoid discussing these important reforms and simply charge Coloradans more at the pump and plow the proceeds into the same broken system that hasn’t delivered. The voters have spoken loud and clear on transportation, the question now is: will my colleagues in the General Assembly choose to listen?

Ray Scott, Republican of Grand Junction, represents District 7 in Mesa County in the Colorado state Senate, and serves on the Senate Transportation & Energy Committee.

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