Editor’s Note: In October and December, the Greater Park Hill News highlighted numerous viewpoints on the proposed widening of Interstate 70 north of Park Hill. In November, Denver City Planner Brad Buchanan praised the plan to widen the outdated and traffic-jammed highway to 10 lanes, submerge it below grade, and cap a portion of it. Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher blasted the plan, calling it a $1.8 billion “boondoggle.” In December more than a dozen faith leaders weighed in, expressing concerns over environmental and social justice impacts on the mostly low-income and minority residents. This month Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford and longtime Denver community activist Thaddeus Tecza take their turn. Both argue – for very different reasons – that the project is far from a “done deal”. All I-70 widening coverage can be read at greaterparkhill.org. Feel free to send your thoughts on the project to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Amy Ford
Colorado Department of Transportation
The December issue of the Greater Park Hill News included three articles about the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) 11-year planning process for the I-70 East project. I would like to clarify a number of points, including how we got here and the implications for local neighborhoods, including Park Hill.
The 12 miles on I-70 between I-25 and Tower Rd. make up one of the busiest and most congested highway corridors in metro Denver. It’s an essential corridor for tourism and commerce.
In 2003, CDOT began to study this corridor with the goal of reducing congestion, increasing safety, and addressing the aging viaduct between Brighton Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard. After more than a decade of work in the neighborhoods directly impacted by I-70 East — namely Swansea, Elyria and Globeville — the proposed plan for I-70 East has become something much more than a highway improvement project.
After considering more than 90 alternatives, what we propose is to tear down the nearly two-mile-long viaduct that has divided these neighborhoods visually and psychologically for more than 50 years.
The viaduct would be replaced with a lowered highway that would feature a 900-foot, four-acre landscaped cover built over the highway south of Swansea Elementary School. Additional lanes would be constructed as tolled express lanes to provide the ability to manage traffic decades into the future, even as Colorado’s population and economy continue to grow.
This proposal reflects the work of hundreds of local residents who worked with their neighbors and our transportation planners at their front doors, in their homes and at their neighborhood schools. Many others also have taken the time to share their views, including hundreds of comments submitted to CDOT on the recently published draft study. This input has shaped the I-70 East project, and will continue to refine it as it moves forward.
Several key issues to stress
In fact, much work remains before I-70 East can proceed to construction. A final environmental study must be prepared. And further discussions are needed on how to pay for this project — which will be among the largest projects in CDOT history — and whether or not private investment should be a part of this funding package. As we work with local communities through this process, there are several key issues that are important to stress.
• No final decisions have been made on any aspect of the project. To many, the question of how we finance I-70 East is as important as what we intend to build. Recent public meetings, which are being held before any action is taken, are meant to involve the public in these funding decisions just as we seek input on design features.
• Moving the entire interstate by rerouting I-70 north onto I-270 and I-76 is not a viable option. CDOT has repeatedly studied this concept and has many significant concerns. Key among them is the large increase in traffic that would divert into neighborhoods along the corridor, including Park Hill.
• Express Lanes are an important feature of this project because they allow CDOT to manage traffic and congestion into the future. This is a lesson learned from the T-REX project on I-25, which, lacking the flexibility tolled Express Lanes provide, clogged with congestion just five years after completion.
• Lowering the highway 30-40 feet below ground removes the ability to widen I-70 again in the future. Ten lanes have been proposed to handle regional growth not just over the next 20 years, but over the 100-year life of this project.
• CDOT cannot build this project if federal air quality standards are violated. An in-depth air quality study – which doesn’t include the benefits of new, tighter emission standards for vehicles – has found that total vehicle emissions remain below federal standards.
• There are impacts to this project and CDOT has developed a proposal to address them. These measures include the 4-acre highway cover, which would be adjacent to Swansea Elementary School; providing new windows, doors and an HVAC system for the school prior to construction beginning; and working closely and fairly with residents and businesses that need to be relocated due to the project, carefully following very clear federal guidelines.
In the end, CDOT’s goal is to build a new I-70 in northeast Denver that meets our safety and traffic needs, while reuniting and protecting the neighborhoods that have suffered in the shadow of the viaduct for far too long.
Amy Ford is director of communications for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Additional information, including the 900-plus comments filed about this project, is at www.i-70east.com
CDOT is Right: I-70 Expansion Far From a Done Deal
By Thaddeus Tecza
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has gone to great lengths to establish the perception that their below-grade, slightly covered expansion of I-70 between Brighton Boulevard and Dahlia Street is a “done deal.”
If you ask the power brokers/insiders, they will tell you that, “the train has already left the station.” They say it’s too late to consider alternatives to proposal, which would widen the highway to five lanes in each direction (including two toll lanes) all the way to Tower Road
But, anyone with experience trying to get the Colorado Departments of Transportation to consider alternatives to their preferences is used to hearing “not yet” and “it’s too late.” However, in the case of I-70 there is reason to suspect that neither of these responses is correct.
Crunching the numbers
CDOT released the Supplementary Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the I-70 East Project in August. That was followed by a public comment period that ended Oct. 31. The department expects to modify the EIS based on those comments and negotiations with the City of Denver, and release a final version in late 2015.
At approximately the same time it will release a final request for proposals from potential private partners who would complete the bulk of the design of the project and do the construction. During early 2016 a contract would be awarded final approval obtained from the Federal Highway Administration. The financial closing would take place in mid-2016 and construction would commence shortly thereafter.
At least that’s what would occur in CDOT’s utopia. The real world outcome is much less certain.
The entire cost of the I-70 East expansion is projected at $1.8 billion, the largest project in CDOT’s history. But, they don’t have that anywhere near that amount of money. Their initial plan to deal with the deficit was to obtain approval for the entire project, but initially build only the below grade trench from Brighton to Dahlia, and a single additional lane to I-225. That would cost $1.2 billion.
It was to be funded by $850 million from the Bridge Enterprise Fund derived from Motor Vehicle Registration fees (one-half of the entire fund for all state bridges for the next 35 years), $50 million in Denver Regional Council of Governments federal pass-through money, and $270 million in Senate Bill 228 money promised to CDOT by the state legislature to restore cuts during the recession.
Looking for money
However, due to the governor’s decision to return tax revenues in excess of Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) limits to the taxpayers, at least $170 million, and perhaps all, of the SB228 money will not be available. CDOT currently is searching for ways to compensate for that loss.
A second financial problem for the I-70 East Project derives from a constitutional challenge to the Bridge Enterprise Fund. The argument is that since individuals are required to pay to register a vehicle even if they never use a bridge, the levy constitutes a “tax” rather than a “fee.” Therefore it falls within the TABOR requirement that tax increases be submitted to a vote of the people. The lower courts have decided in favor of the state, but if the Supreme Court takes the case and rules against the constitutionality of the fee CDOT’s major funding source would disappear.
More than 900 comments submitted
At the same time that the Colorado Department of Transportation is experiencing difficulties funding the highway expansion, political opposition is growing. During the comment period about the proposed I-70 widening and construction, more than 900 separate submissions were submitted.
The opponents objections fell into five major categories; widening the highway, concerns about air pollution and health impacts, concerns about construction impacts, demands for mitigation, and calls to further study rerouting I-70 out of Denver.
The effort against widening the highway — “Stop Ten” — is spearheaded by City Auditor Dennis Gallagher. It has labeled the project a “boondoggle” (see the October issue of the Greater Park Hill News at greaterparkhill.org) and has focused on the social justice impacts to the neighborhoods, including health problems, lost residences and lost businesses.
Others have raised concerns about safety and flooding along a trenched highway, discharge of contaminated waters, water backups into neighborhoods, and children playing on an unventilated cover over a highly polluting highway. COPIRG submitted a comment questioning the need to widen the highway when per person driving miles are declining.
Councilperson Debbie Ortega also has spoken against increasing the highway footprint, and has suggested rerouting some or all truck traffic (comprising 5 pecent of the traffic but producing 50 percent of the pollution) out of Denver.
Ortega, Councilperson Judy Montero, and many neighborhood organizations have requested a significantly greater amount of mitigation for the harm that will be inflicted upon the neighborhoods. But, more mitigation requires more money and no sources for additional revenue have been identified.
An overdone deal?
Finally, demands have been growing that CDOT prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the possibility of removing I-70 from Denver entirely, rerouting through traffic along I-270/I-76, improving the traffic grid across North Denver, and replacing the highway with a surface level boulevard similar to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
Numerous neighborhood organizations across the northern half of the city, the Executive Committee of the Denver Democratic Party, Inter-Neighborhood Cooperative, and the Sierra Club have endorsed studying this option. The League of Women Voters has called for a more rigorous and realistic examination of CDOT’s reroute cost estimate.
Several attorneys are evaluating the potential for National Environmental Protection Act and Civil Rights Act challenges to the Final EIS. And, a large group of community activists have pledged to make the I-70 expansion a central issue in the upcoming municipal elections.
The I-70 East expansion is facing financing difficulties, legal challenges, and growing political opposition. Instead of being “a done deal,” it may well be “an overdone deal.” If the train has already left the station, it may be headed for a washed out bridge. We might want to think about using our limited Bridge Funds to repair that one.
Thad Tecza is a Senior Instructor Emeritus with the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.