ELBERT — In 1997, Robert and Gaye Thomasson left their suburban Denver home after the E-470 toll road came within a mile of their front door.
They believed they had found heaven in the high plains of rural Elbert County, living in a trailer while they built a temporary home through two blizzards, all the while commuting back and forth to their teaching jobs. Eight years later, their wood-and-stone home is nearly finished. But now they have a new worry.
The Thomassons have learned their property is within a 12-mile-wide, 210-mile-long swath of land where a private company plans to build a north-south toll road and railroad tracks so trucks and coal trains can bypass Interstate 25 and congested Front Range cities including Denver and Colorado Springs.
It’s not clear yet where the four-lane divided highway, nicknamed “Super Slab,” will be built, but the Thomassons and others along the corridor are angry their homes and way of life could be sacrificed for the state’s pent-up need for new roads.
“This is like someone walking into your front door and pulling out the sleeper sofa and saying ‘it’s my home,’” Robert Thomasson said.
Legislation aimed at getting the project off the ground sailed through the state House of Representatives and gets its first hearing in the Senate today. Opponents have chartered buses to get people to the state Capitol and they’ve started Web sites, blogs and telephone trees to keep everyone informed.
The debate has been emotional. A posting on one of the Web sites features a graphic of a tank and the comment “Come try to steal my land and you will find out why we believe in the Second Amendment!”
Ray Wells, the leader of the project, has received death threats, spokeswoman Ellen Dumm said. One woman called a state senator asking her how much money she should spend on tile for her bathroom because she feared losing her house, according to Dumm.
Opponents say Wells has provided few details about the project even though the legislation is moving ahead. They want to know where the road will go and who will make sure their rights are protected. They also think state lawmakers don’t realize how many people who’ve moved to the eastern plains in recent years will be affected by a project to help ease big-city traffic.
Dumm insists counties will still have control over how the project will proceed.
“There’s got to be a starting point. This is the starting point. There are many, many steps to come,” she said.
House Bill 1030 would give the state the power to set toll rates for private roads that cross more than one county. Current law allows each county to set a toll. The Front Range Toll Road Co.’s project could still move ahead without the bill, but opponents think that would make it harder for Wells to attract investors.
By contract, investors cannot be revealed unless the legislation is passed, Dumm said.
A state law dating to the 1880s and updated in the 1970s allows private companies to build private toll roads in Colorado; one of the most famous examples is the road built up Pikes Peak.
Under that law, Wells filed his intent to build the project in 1986, a year after a state transportation commission said Colorado should try to build a road through the plains.
More recently, with transportation funding slashed because of budget problems, the state has been eyeing toll roads as a way to keep up with traffic demands. In 2002, the Legislature set up the Colorado Tolling Enterprise to investigate possibilities across the state, including adding toll lanes to Interstate 70. That group studied Wells’ route last year but concluded there wouldn’t be enough toll revenue to support it.
The toll for a car could be about 10 cents a mile or $21 to travel the length of the road, Dumm said. However, Wells and his investors plan to make more money by adding the railroad tracks and three or four service centers, including gas stations.
Dumm said fears of sprawl around the road are unfounded, arguing it wouldn’t make sense to have retail development aimed at truckers who want to drive through the state at 85 mph.
The road itself will be 660-feet across and Wells intends to buy one acre on either side and preserve it as open space in the care of a separate public trust, she said.
At the northern end of the potential road, Cindy Bulinski worries that the cash-strapped state may be too eager to let a private company pay for a new road and that it will have less accountability than the government would.
“I feel like the state is willing to sell out thousands of property owners so they can get off the hook solving the transportation problems,” said Bulinski, who lives between Bennet and Watkins in Adams County.