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If you decelerate just past the 20th Street exit going north on I-25--although you really shouldn't, as this creates "curiosity slowing"--you will see a simple sign: Fortieth Anniversary Valley Highway. One recent Friday morning, a time capsule was buried beneath the sign. Assembled on a grassy bank just east of a hair-raisingly small shoulder were federal and state highway spokesmen and dignitaries, three professional ditch diggers, time-capsule-assembly specialist Ivan Frank, several TV cameramen and a high-tech, black vinyl lectern with a microphone whose acoustics were overwhelmed by the noise of the rushing traffic.
"It's always nice to go to the edge of the freeway on a Friday with some friends," quipped KHOW radio's Don Martin, who then took off into his 36-year history as an airborne traffic reporter. "I was the fifth traffic reporter in the entire United States," Martin recalled. "In those days, I soon discovered there was no traffic, and I had to think of other things to talk about."
Those innocent memories dispensed with, Martin launched into a diatribe for which he is well-known and tolerated. If something is not done about the congestion along I-25's southeast corridor, he pronounced, "people will be shooting each other on the freeway out of sheer frustration." This could happen any day now, he warned, and if light rail is not expanded to more sensible locations, politicians will pay the price when they are "thrown out on their ears."
With that, Dan Hopkins, public information officer for the Colorado Department of Transportation, thanked Martin warmly for his remarks. Hopkins, who has nearly thirty years of traffic-related experience of his own, remains in awe of Martin and his intimate involvement with I-25. When it comes to highways, history is crucial.
"A lot of it has been lost," Hopkins explained, "which is why we are burying this capsule today. We will unearth it ten years from now, on the highway's fiftieth anniversary, and find items that were pertinent to today."
Among those items: pamphlets, reports and maps, including "Our Nation's Highways," and "State of Colorado's Highways," as well as vintage aerial views and a certain reporter's indecipherable notebook.
"Will we still be facing the same issues in ten years?" Hopkins asked. "Will we have made any progress?" Too modest to make his own grand predictions, Hopkins allowed as to how he would probably still be working for the Colorado Department of Transportation a decade from now and had already marked the capsule-unearthing date in his Day-Timer.
The obligatory series of dirt-shoveling photos ensued, after which orange-vested CDOT flag men and women directed the crowd back to their cars and out onto the highway.
Happy fortieth birthday, I-25.
I was only ten years old when the first part of the highway was completed," Dan Hopkins remembers. "I've never forgotten it. I'm a Denver native and a history buff, and I saw it all happen."
In brief, what happened was this: Although the idea of a freeway paralleling the South Platte River had been discussed as early as 1938, construction on the road did not start until ten years later. By 1956 the part of the highway that runs beside the river--from 52nd Avenue to Santa Fe Drive--had been completed, but funds to do the rest of the job were scarce. On June 29 of that year, President Dwight Eisenhower approved the Interstate Highway Program and saved the day--"During the war, he saw how the German autobahns worked, and he realized we didn't have that here," Hopkins theorizes--and by 1958 I-25 stretched to the city limits, at Evans Avenue.
It was then that Hopkins's grandfather decided to take his grandson and his 1956 Chevrolet for a first spin on the new highway. "We got on at Sixth Avenue, and I'll be darned if he didn't get going the wrong way," Hopkins recalls. "And he continued on for some time. It was memorable. It was also kind of creepy."
But it did not dissuade Hopkins from devoting his career to highways. Using his University of Denver journalism degree, he started out with radio traffic reports, spent ten years as spokesman for the state chapter of the Automobile Association of America, then moved on down the road to CDOT. While boosterishly proud of the "wonderful transportation system we have built," Hopkins is also well aware of the snarl of problems he calls "I-25's midlife crisis."
"I think there was a period when the construction was actually finished," he explains, "but now we've hit the reconstruction phase, and it seems like we are always working on our highways. All these pavements, bridges and viaducts have a design life of about twenty years, maybe thirty if you're lucky, and you have to start rebuilding. All of I-25 has been repaved a gazillion times."
Not only is the Valley Highway old, it's small. "No one could possibly have imagined the congestion we have now," Hopkins says. "This was the solution to congestion. Every growth projection ever made was wrong."
Traffic has gone from 21,000 vehicles on the highway on a typical weekday in 1956 to 205,000 in 1996--except that weekdays are no longer typical. They've expanded to include so many rush hours in so many directions that they can barely be identified, much less tabulated and studied. "My personal nightmare is that the Rockies, the Broncos, the Avalanche and Elitch's will all have events on the same day," Hopkins sighs, knowing he is the one who will get the phone calls.