CO Makes Political Shift, Democrats Control

By Hol Wagner | September 28, 2010

For the first time since 1959, Colorado has a Democratic governor and both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. Whether this will be a good thing for the state or a bad one remains to be seen — and will undoubtedly be a matter of opinion.

New Gov. Bill Ritter, formerly Denver district attorney, was sworn in on Jan. 9 and by that time had announced all the members of his cabinet but one: the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. Ritter is an outspoken proponent of an efficient, balanced transportation system and supports increased funding for highways and transit, so his selection to head CDOT is an important one.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Owens, too, was a strong supporter of transportation and was often dubbed the "highway governor." As related in the Pueblo, Colo., Chieftain (the daily in a predominantly Democratic city), after delivering on his promise of tax relief, "It took him only one year also to deliver on another campaign promise — to jump-start Colorado's lagging highway construction program — by winning voter approval of revenue-bond financing of transportation projects.

"Even though Denver's T-REX project, now virtually completed, took the lion's share of the bond money, the Owens program did free up other funds needed to expedite construction of additional projects across the state — including Pueblo's Eagleridge interchange on Interstate 25."

Owens will also be remembered (fondly by some, not so fondly by others) for his staunch support of Referendums C and D. Though D was defeated by voters, C passed and is providing additional funding badly needed by CDOT. As the Pueblo Chieftain recalled it, "The governor's second four years at the helm were dogged by the loss of first the Senate and finally both the House and Senate majorities to the Democrats. The most conspicuous product of this new division of political power was a compromise between the Republican Owens and the Democratic legislative leaders on asking voters to forego Taxpayers Bill of Rights refunds on state revenues. Voters responded by passing, by a small margin, Referendum C. This will let the state retain what's now estimated at $5.7 billion over five years that otherwise would have been refunded to taxpayers under TABOR."

Tom Norton, executive director of CDOT under Owens and a civil engineer by training, will be tough to replace. As the Denver Post noted in bidding farewell to Owens' cabinet, "Colorado Department of Transportation director Tom Norton oversaw the state's first integrated light rail/highway expansion project with T-REX. While the mega-project gobbled up transportation funding for the metro area, Norton was mindful of the entire state's needs."

Though his accomplishments while heading CDOT were many, Norton will always be remembered for T-REX, which widened 17 miles of Interstate 25 through Denver's Southeast Corridor and added 19 miles of new light rail transit line to the mix. The $1.7-billion design-build project was undertaken in partnership with Denver's Regional Transportation District and was completed by contractor Southeast Corridor Constructors in just five years.

But T-REX was also responsible for two "awards" Norton would just as soon forget. For the last five years of his eight as governor, at nearly every senior staff meeting, Owens presented an award to the Cabinet member who'd done or been responsible for the dumbest thing since the last meeting. The awards were known as the Norty, after Norton, who received the first one in April 2002 after a T-REX crane toppled over on I-25, crushing two cars. Blaming Norton for that was something of a stretch, but the awards, of course, were only tongue-in-cheek honors, and Norton said, "I take some offense and some pride he [Owens] would name it after me."

Norton's second T-REX Norty came when the demolition of an I-25/I-225 interchange bridge using explosives was televised on a Saturday morning. The governor was supposed to push the button to set off the charges that would topple the bridge. But when Owens hit the button and the implosion took place, over half the bridge remained standing. (It was successfully toppled later in the day by more conventional means, which of course drew little media coverage.) So Norton received his second Norty and quipped, "I'm awful proud of T-REX. Getting it only two times for T-REX is pretty damn good, because there are a lot of opportunities."

Colorado will miss both Owens and Norton.

Meanwhile, Nevada's new governor, Republican Jim Gibbons, announced he is promoting 22-year NDOT employee Susan Martinovich to fill the agency director's position. Martinovich has been NDOT deputy director and chief engineer under Jeff Fontaine, who announced in December that he is stepping down from that post to lead the Nevada Association of Counties.