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I-70 Reroute: Myths and Realities

There are many misconceptions that surround CDOT’s impending reconstruction of the I-70 reroute. This post lists these misconceptions, and addresses them by telling the real story.

Myth: It is too late to study the possibility of removing I-70 from Denver and rerouting it along the I-270/I-76 corridor. The decision has already been made to do the below grade highway widening. The train has already left the station.

Reality: The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has just published a Draft Supplemental EIS on the below grade option. The Record of Decision (the final decision) won’t be made until 2015 at the earliest and construction won’t begin until at least 2016. Until then other alternatives are still on the table.

Myth: A decision has to be made quickly because the I-70 viaduct is deteriorating and may be unsafe.

Reality: The Draft Supplemental EIS rates the Viaduct at a 62 on the scale of Colorado bridges. According to “Your CDOT Dollar” a bridges rated 62, “require preservation-focused maintenance or occasional corrective rehabilitation work.” In 2011 CDOT spent $24m on repairs to the viaduct which “Provided an estimated 10-15 yrs. of structure life.” That means that the viaduct is perfectly safe until at least 2021 and probably until 2026, and its life could be extended even longer at a very small cost.

Myth: A decision has to be made quickly because we have been studying this issue for 10 years and now it is just time to build.

Reality: Just as the decision to initially locate I-70 in Denver in the 1960s affected the City for the next half century, this decision will determine how the northern half of Denver will develop for the next half century. In fact, if a private sector partner is engaged to build the highway (a Public-Private-Partnership) a long-term contract will be signed to retain the right-of-way to allow that company to make a profit. For the sake of Globeville, Elyria, Swansea and the entire northern metropolitan region, it is more important to make the right decision than to make a hasty decision.

Myth: We have to expand the highway to 10 lanes to deal with highway congestion today.

Reality: According to CDOT the purpose of the new toll lanes is not primarily to relieve congestion. It is to provide a “reliable trip” for people in the toll lanes. They define a reliable trip as an average speed to 45 mph. In order to accomplish this, when highway traffic increases they will increase tolls, forcing more cars into the general purpose lanes, increasing congestion in those lanes to maintain a smooth ride for those who can afford the tolls. This transfers wealth from the general public who paid for the highway, and the people living along it who bear its negative effects, to rich people riding in the “lexis lanes”.

Myth: We have to expand the highway to 10 lanes to deal with increased highway traffic in the future.

Reality: Between 2005 and 2011 annual per person vehicles miles traveled declined 11.4% in Colorado. Because of an aging population, changing driving habits among young people, more people working from home, increased urbanization and greater use of public transportation people are driving less each year. Moreover, because of better technology the capacity of existing highways is increasing. A study at Columbia University estimates that within 75 years current highways can safely transport almost three times as many cars. Widening highways is thinking for the past century, not the next century. It wastes taxpayers’ dollars.

Myth: Studying rerouting I-70 along I-270/I-76 would require a full new Environmental Impact Statement and would delay the project by 5 to 10 years.

Reality: The I-270/I-76 reroute was one of the multiple alternatives proposed by CDOT in 2003. It was summarily dismissed, but I-270 was always considered part of the study corridor. In fact, CDOT held outreach meetings in Adams County as late as November of 2012 seeking to convince people there that placing the highway along I-270 would not be in their interest. As a result, examining the I-270/I-76 alternative would be no different than what CDOT did when it examined the below grade option after initially rejecting it as part of its 2008 EIS. It would only require a Supplemental EIS which experts in the field estimate would not take longer than 9 to 12 months, and which would not cost more than $1m.

Myth: The I-270/I-76 reroute was studied and rejected by CDOT in 2003, and was studied and rejected again in 2008.

Reality: The Colorado Department of Transportation has repeatedly been asked to produce any studies of the full reroute that have been done. They have consistently been unable or unwilling to do so.

Myth: The I-270/I-76 reroute was presented to the PACT of stakeholders and to members of the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea communities at outreach meetings and was rejected by them.

Reality: The PACT was specifically prohibited from considering the full reroute. The only reroute that was submitted to the PACT and to community members would have begun east of I-25 and cut through the heart of Elyria to intersect I-270. It would have done irreparable harm to the community and was rightly rejected, but it was very different from the full reroute. In fact, according to Denver City Councilperson Paul Lopez, when community members throughout East Denver were surveyed by CDOT in 2003 their first preference was for I-70 to be removed.

Myth: The I-270/I-76 reroute was rejected by CDOT because a cost analysis was done and it was found to be too expensive. It would cost $4.35b.

Reality: a document provided by CDOT in response to inquiries states, “Cost estimates typically are not prepared for eliminated alternatives.” The $4.35b number is a “high level cost estimate” prepared in response to questions. It has been rejected as grossly elevated by several experts who place the realistic cost as between $500m and $1b, about one-half the cost of the below grade option. And, this figure does not include the savings from not having to reconstruct and widen I-270 after the I-70 below grade option is completed; something that CDOT has already promised Adams County.

Myth: The below grade option isn’t perfect, but it will improve conditions in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea over what currently exists.

Realty: A survey of 15 real estate brokers who work across north Denver estimates that if the below grade option is completed and the highway is widened, it will decrease property values in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea by an average of 6.85%. It will increase the isolation of those living north of the highway by tripling the north-south division to over 300 feet, by reducing the number of north-south cross streets from fourteen to six, and by erecting 8 to 14 foot sound barrier/safety walls in residential areas. In contrast, according to the realtors, rerouting the highway would increase property values by an average of 24%.

Myth: CDOT’s plan for the below grade option adequately mitigates the effect of the highway at Swansea Elementary School.

Reality: The Environmental Protection Agency’s School Siting Standards recommend that no school be located within a half mile of an Interstate highway. California outlaws new schools being constructed within 500 feet of a major highway. The only mitigation that CDOT has offered to this point is to move the playground to the other side of the school, install soundproof doors and windows, improve the internal ventilation and construct two new classrooms. This is wholly inadequate to protect the health of the children.

Myth: Rerouting the highway will result in deterioration of the neighborhood by replacing it with a busy surface level road similar to Colorado Boulevard or Santa Fe Boulevard.

Reality: Nobody is proposing simply removing the highway and installing a surface level boulevard. In each of the numerous cities that have successfully removed highways, the removal has been accompanied by planning to improve the traffic grid and to support the creation of alternative transportation modalities such as biking and mass transit. In every other city that has removed a highway it has resulted in less traffic congestion.

Myth: Rerouting I-70 would flood I-270 and I-76 with over 400,000 cars per day.

Reality: CDOT’s own projections for the reroute are for a maximum of 140,000 Average Daily Traffic on I-270 and 125,000 ADT on I-76. Estimates above that are simply scare tactics which double count the cars that would be on the rerouted highway and the surface boulevard, and which do not contemplate any planning to improve other routes.

Myth: Rerouting the highway is just another case of NIMBY. It would be detrimental to Adams County and Jefferson County.

Reality: According to numerous developers who have interests in Adams and Jefferson Counties, a state-of-the-art highway such as currently exists through Vail, Glenwood Canyon or T-Rex would substantially increase property values along I-270 and I-76 by changing the image of the southern part of those counties. It would promote the type of office and light industrial development that belongs along an interstate highway such as that which currently exists at the Tech Center and Interlocken.