Don’t Let Special Interests Hijack the Reconstruction of I-70 in Colorado

Commentary

Don’t Let Special Interests Hijack the Reconstruction of I-70 in Colorado

Two lawmakers in Colorado's House have proposed a new environmental study of project approved by mayors.

I-70 in Colorado, like many Interstates, is coming to the end of its lifespan. The elevated 53 year-old section between I-25 and Chambers Road that carries 200,000 vehicles per day is particularly problematic and needs to be replaced for safety and efficiency reasons.

This section passes through a low-income community. When the Interstate was constructed, planners chose to use a viaduct for this section. In theory, a viaduct compared to a highway at-grade allows better connectivity for the surrounding community. In reality the viaduct cut off many roads depressing movement and economic activity. The resulting highway noise made the neighborhood less popular than surrounding communities. The highway limited development and caused some residents to move out.

Fifty years ago it was a common practice to build Interstates through communities. Today, departments of transportation do things differently. For more than 10 years, the Colorado Department of Transportation has been studying how best to replace the roadway without harming the community. After CDOT chose its preferred alternative, the project went through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process, which examined the environmental and community impacts of the project.

CDOT is planning to rebuild the 10-mile stretch of I-70 by adding express toll lanes in each direction and placing the Interstate into a covered trench between Brighton and Colorado boulevards. CDOT would then add a 4-acre linear park over the Interstate. So in addition to providing a new roadway, CDOT is burying parts of it to reduce noise and improve neighborhood connectivity. Swansea Elementary school students will use some of the parkland for recess and physical education. Additionally, project sponsors are providing $2 million for affordable housing in the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods. Project sponsors are also adding sidewalks to the neighborhood.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the linear park option “…(I)s in the best overall public interest, uses all practical means to restore and enhance the quality of the environment, and avoids or minimizes any possible adverse affects.”

CDOT is widening the highway by adding express toll lanes (one-two in each direction). States across the country including California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia are building express toll lanes. These lanes use variable pricing to manage demand, providing un-congested trips even during rush hours. This pricing also encourages those who can to avoid trips rush hour when congestion is greatest. It also provides an option for commuters who have to be somewhere on time, such as picking up a child from day care.

Most area leaders support the plan. Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, Commissioner Eva Henry of Adams County, and Mayor Sean Ford of Commerce City support CDOT’s chosen alternative.

But not everyone is happy. In a very unusual move Colorado House Speaker Duran and Representative Pabon have called for a new study committee on mitigating the impact of large transportation projects. The only large transportation project underway in the state is the I-70 project. The study would examine air and groundwater pollution and specific concerns affecting residents and businesses in the project area. There are several problems with this request.

First, it duplicates the existing NEPA work over the past 11 years, which led to an exceptionally detailed community-benefits document. CDOT will include an advanced system to capture stormwater runoff, and the improved travel speeds will reduce vehicle emissions. Most community residents are happy with CDOT’s mitigation efforts.

Second, this request damages Colorado’s business climate for private investment in transportation (as planned for the I-70 project). It signals uncertainty to investors, and it creates yet another political hurdle for the project to overcome. Investors like certainty and could leave Colorado for states like Florida and Texas that have fewer hurdles to overcome. This step could also lead to increased risk premiums on bids. making new transportation infrastructure in Colorado more expensive.

Third, it would add yet another hurdle for a roadway that has been in planning and pre-construction for 15 years. It would create unnecessary work that taxpayers would have to pay for. It is akin to planting flowers in your yard, ripping them up and then planting the exact same kind of flowers again.

Since the community is generally satisfied with the current CDOT plan, what is really going on? A few environmentalists, who are unhappy with building any roadways, are trying to delay the I-70 reconstruction hoping that the current roadway becomes so dangerous that it is closed, and that traffic then avoids the area. In their minds, commuters will switch from cars to transit, biking or walking. But in reality, most commuters will switch to other roads, increasing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, and decreasing safety. Trucks, which deliver most of our freight, will take longer to transport the goods we use, increasing freight prices. And economic activity, which has been growing in Denver since the great recession, will take a major hit.

CDOT has worked hard to protect and improve the communities near the I-70-central project. Don’t let special interests hijack the NEPA process and harm the economy.

Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation Policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.