Denver's Blizzard Shutdown Now a Political Football

Ruling Democrats slapped down four rookie Republican state lawmakers Thursday when they tried to ask hard questions about why DIA shut down for 45 hours during a pre- Christmas blizzard.

Democratic leaders cut off discussion at a joint meeting of the Senate-House transportation committees, saying the legislature has no jurisdiction over city-run Denver International Airport.

Afterward, Republicans accused Democrats of muzzling crucial debate that could prevent a rerun of the DIA shutdown that gave Denver a black eye and delivered an economic blow to Colorado during the peak holiday season.

"This would have been a great opportunity for Mayor (John) Hickenlooper and the city of Denver to come tell the people of Colorado what they're doing to make it better next time," said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

McNulty and fellow Republicans Don Marostica, of Loveland; Spencer Swalm, of Centennial, and Jerry Sonnenberg, of Sterling, said Democrats blocked them from inviting the mayor and snow-removal experts from other major airports.

But Democrats fired off a statement saying that instead of seeking solutions, the four Republicans were "grandstanding" in a bid to "hijack the meeting and turn it into a congressional-style investigation."

"The airport belongs to Denver. That is not our jurisdiction," Rep. Alice Borodkin, D-Denver, said later. "Before launching a legislative hearing, why don't they contact Mayor Hickenlooper and talk to him?"

She accused Republicans of ignoring passenger safety and the fact that the entire region was paralyzed by a colossal blizzard.

"When DIA is closed for business, our economy is damaged, our tourism is hurt and our families are affected," Borodkin said. "But the utmost thing at any airport is safety."

The blizzard dumped 20 inches of snow in 24 hours, packing 30-mph winds that had plow operators driving blind, said Mary Buckley, DIA's director of government affairs. With drifts 8 feet deep, as soon as workers cleared runways, the wind would blow the snow back onto them.

But what critics wanted to know is why it took the airport 22 hours after it stopped snowing to get planes flying again. In a Jan. 2 letter to House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Buffie McFadyen, Republicans cited a Dec. 29 Rocky Mountain News story comparing big snowstorms at DIA and four other major airports that indicated the longest it took other airports to reopen was 12 1/2 hours.

Buckley stressed that the blizzard crippled not just DIA, but the region.

The federal authorities couldn't get security screeners to DIA because 70 percent of them take RTD buses, which were shut down by the storm, she said. It was easier to have United fly in 50 screeners from the Las Vegas airport.

Officials for United and Frontier airlines said they had crews scattered across the country.

The sparks began to fly when McNulty rejected Buckley's explanation that the storm hit faster than anyone could anticipate, and it was impossible to safely operate DIA while clearing the sprawling, 32-square-mile airport.

Eventually, panel chairwoman Sen. Stephanie Takis, cut him off.

"Rep. McNulty, this is a transportation committee. It is not a contract review of the city of Denver and the airport. Please keep it on target," she said.

Soon, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, questioned why the hearing was being held. "Other than putting (DIA officials) on the spot and getting some TV time out of this, I guess I'm wondering why we're here, listening to this?"

Takis agreed: "I'm going to put an end to it."


By the numbers

The holiday Blizzard of 2006 at Denver International Airport

45 hours - Time DIA was closed

2,000 - Approximate number of United Airlines flights canceled

$40 million- Amount United Airlines lost

$12 million - Amount Frontier Airlines lost

20 inches - Amount of snow

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