The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Aug. 8, on hope for transportation improvements:
First the bad news, then the good. We promise.
Summer travel season highlights a sad state of affairs, which gets worse each year. Highways in nearby Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska make Colorado look like a developing country — not a state with one of America's top 10 economies.
The notorious I-25 gap narrows to four total lanes of freeway between Colorado Springs and Denver, causing hours-long traffic snarls seven days a week. That is because the gap links two metropolitan areas with a combined population of 3.8 million — not including the massive influx of tourists to our state. Both metros are growing by leaps and bounds.
Compare that to the freeway connecting Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. The 60-mile stretch of I-80 provides six total lanes, connecting two metropolitan areas with a combined population of 1.2 million.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper compared us to Utah during his 2017 State of the State speech, explaining our western neighbor has a population half the size of Colorado's and invests four times more each year to expand highway capacity.
Then we have Texas, which builds frontage roads that rival Colorado's major freeways.
Unlike Colorado, those states did not pour money into Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act. Their legislators and governors improved highways for the past decade. Colorado politicians funded Medicaid, hoping voters would raise taxes if highways crumbled and traffic outgrew capacity.
Here's the good news.
Politicians are forfeiting the game of chicken, realizing highway neglect kills people. The Colorado Department of Transportation says construction will begin next month to widen the gap with one new managed toll lane in each direction. No one raised state taxes. The project adds a fourth lane for southbound trucks to climb Monument Hill. The state anticipates completion in 2021.
And here is more good news.
The Denver-based Independence Institute submitted 150,000 petition signatures Monday for a ballot measure called "Fix Our Damn Roads." That is considerably more than enough signatures to get the measure on November's ballot.
By approving the measure, voters will force state politicians to issue bonds for immediate highway improvements in 2019. They will force politicians to prioritize roads when allocating Colorado's record-setting $1 billion-plus revenue surplus. The ballot measure specifies highway projects, obtained from a list of priorities established by the Department of Transportation.
Not long after the institute delivered its petitions, the Denver Chamber of Commerce showed up at the secretary of state's office with petitions for a ballot measure demanding new taxes for transportation. Incredibly, the chamber wants a 21 percent increase in the state sales tax. It would make combined sales taxes in Colorado Springs and a few other cities among the highest in the country.
The proposed tax increase commits a significant portion of revenues to local transportation slush funds and special-interest transit projects.
As made clear by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, the Pikes Peak region loses big if the tax hike wins.
With heavy equipment deploying to the gap in September, hope lies on the near horizon for better mobility up and down the Front Range.
We applaud the Colorado Department of Transportation, Gov. Hickenlooper, Mayor Suthers, El Paso County commissioners, state legislators, and an assortment of other community leaders for forging ahead with long-overdue improvements to I-25.
While fixing the gap is a big step in the right direction, it falls considerably short of resolving our statewide transportation crisis.
We need better highways soon throughout the state, not promises of fuzzy and uncertain outcomes at too high of a price. That means rejecting the 21 percent tax hike and saying yes to the bond measure.
Aurora Sentinel, Aug. 8, on the need for independent oversight in police shootings:
Here we go again, Aurora.
An Aurora police officer is accused of wrongly killing someone in the line of duty. While it's unusual, the tragedy isn't rare enough.
Last week, in what should be the definition of surreal conundrums police must face these days, a drug-enraged naked man broke into the home of an elderly veteran in the middle of the night and tried to drown his 11-year-old grandson in a bathtub. Somehow in the chaos, the decorated war veteran, Richard Black, got his gun and shot the intruder dead. About 13 seconds later, police rescuers rushing into the house shot the hero-vet dead.
It will be weeks, maybe even months, maybe even never before the public finds out exactly why the resident whose home had been invaded was shot. To say that Black shouldn't have been shot under the wild and bizarre circumstances would be prejudging the details of the bizarre confrontation.
For Aurora police, the scenario is uncomfortably familiar. An officer "wrongly" shoots, stuns, arrests or assaults someone, and an internal investigation takes place. Sometimes the investigation is completely internal. Other times, the investigation is completed jointly with another police agency or prosecutors. It is never independent.
Outside agencies, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, sometimes take up the case, sue the police department, and the win huge settlements for the subjects of the police actions, or their surviving family members.
Police and city officials then say that the huge settlements do not imply police wrongdoing, only that it's a way to save taxpayer money by avoiding an expensive lawsuit. City officials have spent millions on such settlements in their effort to save taxpayers money. There is little doubt that millions of Aurora taxpayer dollars are destined for the family of Richard Black.
What never happens during these cases in Aurora is an independent investigation. It's because police have long had a stranglehold on the process, refusing to allow a truly independent oversight committee to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing.
There is no committee here — like there is in so many large police departments like Aurora's across the country — that is free of political pressure, police union influence, political appearances, prosecutor entanglements or any agenda other than looking out for the public's interest by assessing situations gone wrong in the police department.
It's a shameful hole in an otherwise solid police department.
It took almost a year for the public to get answers after a veteran and highly esteemed Aurora SWAT officer shot and killed Naeschylus Vinzant — an unarmed black man being sought for a parole violation — on March 6, 2015. A grand jury decided the officer should not face criminal charges. The city paid $2.6 million in a settlement.
More recently, police have been criticized for how they handled a confrontation with two innocent black men being questioned about a nearby crime. One of the men was stunned by an officer who told the injured black man to look at a police camera.
"Hey, look right here," one officer told the injured man. "It's all on video, sweetheart." That settlement was $110,000.
Just last month, Aurora shelled out tens of thousands of dollars over allegations of police malfeasance in two cases that were never investigated publicly and which police refuse to talk about.
Like in so many cases, these incidents result in large payouts from taxpayers, assurances by police that there was no wrongdoing, and shoulder shrugs as everyone explains they've agreed not to talk.
Aurora residents deserve better, and so do police rank and file.
The city's stacked oversight committee, run by the police chief and city manager, undermines the credibility and reputation of one of the best police forces in the country because it is not autonomous or independent.
City leaders should end Aurora's farcical oversight device and appoint a committee to create a truly independent and empowered panel that can credibly back police when they're wrongly maligned, or expose serious incompetence or malfeasance if it's uncovered.
Too much is at stake to continue to undermine the integrity of the police force and the hundreds of officers who diligently toe the line of this highly respected agency.
Aurora should work to create an independent panel immediately to analyze how an officer shot dead an apparent rescuer inside a scene of utter chaos.
Otherwise, a prosecutor or grand jury will decline to press charges. Police will go mum to "protect" taxpayers from an inevitable lawsuit. The city will write a huge check to the dead veteran's family, and the next regrettable death, assault or other action by police will appear on the horizon.
The Denver Post, Aug. 3, on Xcel promising free renewables:
Gov. John Hickenlooper praised Xcel Energy's plan to shut down two coal plants in Pueblo during his annual address to lawmakers in January.
"What is it the critics don't like?" Hickenlooper quipped. "Is it the cleaner air or the lower utility bills?"
Oh, if only it were that simple.
The Public Utility Commission heard complex testimony last week detailing the proposal from Xcel to close the power plants and replace them with another 1,100 megawatt hours of wind and solar power. Critics say they've uncovered evidence that the plan will likely mean increased utility bills.
After investigating the issue, we still think it's a worthwhile endeavor even if the promise of a cost-free switch to renewables is overstated by proponents.
Xcel estimates the plan will prevent power plants from spewing 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year beginning in 2026. That's roughly the equivalent of taking 760,000 cars off Colorado roads.
We hope the three appointed commissioners on the Public Utilities Commission will decide next month to approve Xcel's proposal.
However, we remain healthily skeptical that shuttering two coal powered plants more than a decade early will save rate payers $215 million.
And we're not alone.
The PUC's unbiased staff took a spoonful of disbelief too as they analyzed Xcel's extremely complicated modeling.
"Staff believes this amount is likely overstated and Staff is unable to conclude that the (plan to decommission Comanche 1 and Comanche 2 early) Preferred CEPP is more likely than not to produce savings," PUC employees wrote in their comments on Xcel's most recent analysis.
Notably, staff didn't discredit all of the savings Xcel thought they were likely to gain with their plan, only about $71 million worth, which would still leave a healthy margin of savings for ratepayers.
However, there's another flaw in the logic of a cost-free switch to renewables.
Energy users will pay more for the early depreciation of the Comanche plants, but Xcel proposes offsetting the necessary increase to bills by cutting in half a separate 2 percent fee charged to every customer.
That fee is known as the Renewable Energy Standard Adjustment and it was created by Colorado lawmakers to provide investor-owned utilities with a way to pay for the mandate that a greater portion of their energy — now at least 30 percent — come from renewable sources.
But it's a bit of an accounting trick to say that it's a one-for-one swap for customers, similar to claims by politicians that renewing expiring bond issues isn't a tax increase.
Xcel hasn't been using all of the RESA it collects every year, because it was able to comply with the 30 percent renewable energy standard without using all of the RESA fee. It's feasible that the state would one day reduce the 2 percent fee based on the fact that it is over-collecting a fee. That would mean utility bills would go down, but under the Xcel plan instead of rates going down when the fee is cut, they would stay the same and fund the early closure of the Comanche plants.
Officials with Xcel say that even taking all of that into account, their plan is a better deal than the alternative. A perfect convergence of extremely low-cost wind energy and battery storage, federal tax credits for wind energy production and the ability to close two aging facilities has put Xcel in the unique position of being able to move away from coal without hurting its customers.
And that should be the threshold that the PUC commissioners consider — will it hurt?
This plan doesn't have to save money to still be worthwhile.
We supported Hickenlooper's executive order a year ago, setting the voluntary goal for our utilities to cut power plant carbon emissions by 35 percent by 2030, compared to emissions levels in 2012. Shuttering these two power plants gets Xcel closer to complying with that admirably high hurdle.
There might be no such thing as free renewables, but Xcel is getting close enough.