Getting the message across

When investing in infrastructure, making people understand the value they will receive from a project is key in gaining public acceptance.

“Whether you’re building a light rail system or adding lanes to an existing highway, you have to communicate that you are transparent and fair,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper told the 2,700 or so attendees – most of them foreign investors looking to invest in the US – at the SelectUSA 2015 Investment Summit, organised by the Department of Commerce and held in Washington DC last week.

“In other words, [the vision you’ve got to communicate is that] people are going to get what they paid for and it’s going to have a real value for the community beyond just the frequency with which an individual will use that specific piece of infrastructure,” the governor explained.

Having served as Mayor of Denver between 2003 and 2011, when he resigned in order to serve as the state’s governor, Hickenlooper is well-equipped to discuss infrastructure projects, public-private partnerships (PPP; P3) and public acceptance.

“I was elected [mayor] in 2003 and we were well into imagining what a transit solution would look like that would really simplify people’s lives, reduce a lot of congestion and waiting times,” Hickenlooper remarked.

Denver’s FasTracks, a multi-billion dollar initiative taken by the Regional Transportation District (RTD) and approved by the city’s voters to expand transit in the Denver metro region was established, was established in 2004. According to the project’s website, a total of $5.3 billion has since been invested or committed across the region.

The way Denver was able to finance the initiative, which included 122 miles of light and commuter rail – was by increasing the sales tax 4/10ths of a percent – an increase Denver voters approved.

According to Hickenlooper, all of the mayors of the greater Denver area – 34 at the time – were able to get their constituents on board by going and demonstrating that even if the light rail didn’t come to their specific community, the congestion relief that would be achieved on the roads and highways as a result of the light rail would benefit them as well.

“In essence they provided an incentive for people to get out of their cars and get out of their way,” Hickenlooper said.

The redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station is another example of a successful P3 in the state.

Originally built in 1881, Union Station was rebuilt in 1914 following a fire in 1894. In October 2004, the station was designated a landmark building.

The city of Denver used a combination of innovative financing including a TIFIA loan, an RRIF [Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing] loan as well as committing to use the increase in property taxes to pay for the station, which ended up costing nearly $1 billion.

Although city officials were transparent from the very beginning of the project, Hickenlooper reckoned there was still a lot of push back from the public.

“They feel that somehow when private enterprise is involved in a project like this, someone is sneaking something past them. They thought we were giving away too much, that the growth wouldn’t be there, that the taxpayer would be at risk,” Hickenlooper explained.

But despite the public’s reservations, the development around the station has exceeded the city’s best-case scenario, the governor said.

The station reopened in May 2014 as an intermodal hub for the region, integrating RTD’s light rail and commuter rail lines, Amtrak rail service, regional buses, taxis and shuttles. The station also features a boutique hotel and retail stores.

“Making those investments in an innovative way – whether it’s a bridge or a highway or transit [system] – dramatically changes how people think about your city,” Hickenlooper said.

And it’s the investments in infrastructure that have led to Denver being a top destination among millennials as a place to work and live, in his view.

“People say ‘oh, Denver is close to all that skiing, that’s why millennials are coming.’ That’s part of it, but I think a lot of it is the quality of life that you can demonstrate and talk about,” Hickenlooper pointed out, noting that the kind of infrastructure a city has determines to a great extent the quality of life it offers its residents.