SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A stretch of country highway near Denver has become an unlikely rallying point for opponents of the privatization and tolling of roads.


The highway, known as Tower Road, was inexplicably slowed several years ago to 40 miles per hour from 55, and traffic lights appeared at three intersections.

The move had locals in the town of Commerce City, Colorado, population 35,000, scratching their heads. Just as a new toll road had opened up near the town, their lightly traveled local thoroughfare got a lot slower.

Newly disclosed documents show that, as part of a non-compete agreement with the toll road authority 10 years ago, officials from the town of Commerce City agreed to intentionally slow down the road -- now much busier with hotels and office buildings -- to discourage drivers from skipping out on paying to use the toll highway.

"They didn't want to have Tower Road be a competitive thoroughfare," said Robert Gehler, the Commerce City attorney, who was a part of the negotiations.

The disclosure of the Tower Road slowdown -- discovered by an inquisitive Colorado resident who posted it on the blog -- shines a light on the touchy issue of non-compete agreements, which are a common component of toll roads.

The issue is likely to become even more pressing now that President George W. Bush has signed the federal highway bill, which includes a $15 billion bonding provision designed to increase toll-road investment.