The Blacktop Jungle

Are the series of superhighways inching their way around Denver a "beltway"--or a noose?

"It was found that with an investment in light rail, you could handle the same amount of development with less vehicle travel, pollution and traffic congestion," says Lauren Martens of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Martens says the full impact of E-470 still isn't clear and that much will depend on the type of development local officials allow. "The big question is, will E-470 be an uncontrolled sprawl monster or will we be able to control the kinds of development generated by it?" he says.

Hogan insists that development along E-470 need not harm Denver. "If you take the portion of the beltway open to date, you've seen new residential, Park Meadows and growth in Meridian [office park]," he notes. "But at the same time, you've seen Coors Field, the redevelopment of lower downtown and the proposed Pepsi Center. I think that shows you can have compatibility."

Whatever the final impact of E-470 on the Denver landscape, no one disputes that the new highway will affect the region's air. New roads and development generate more driving, and the beltway will add more pollution to Denver's skies. However, it's still not clear how much the brown cloud will grow because of the new highway.

When selling $654 million in construction bonds in 1995, E-470 planners estimated drivers would rack up about 840,125 miles per day on the highway by 2001. By contrast, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), which under federal law is charged with making sure new road projects don't harm air quality, estimated in 1996 that only 473,000 daily miles would be traveled in 2001. The discrepancy in figures is no accident, say opponents of the beltway.

"E-470 has an interest in saying there will be a lot of cars on the road and DRCOG has an interest in saying there won't be," says Robert Wiygul, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. E-470 needed high estimates to sell the bonds, says Wiygul, while DRCOG wanted low travel estimates to avoid the possibility of federal sanctions.

Federal highway law now precludes funding roadways that will boost regional air-pollution levels. E-470 is not receiving federal funding, but if Denver's brown cloud starts getting worse because of the beltway, the feds may refuse to fund everything from new off-ramps on I-25 to reconstructed viaducts on South Santa Fe Drive.

"Theoretically, there are checks in place for air-pollution impacts," says Wiygul. "DRCOG is supposed to look at those things and figure out how they can be ameliorated."

If E-470 had been a federally funded highway, it would have undergone an extensive environmental analysis to determine its effect on air pollution. But since the tollway is being funded mostly by the private investors who bought E-470 bonds, such a review was not required.

Hogan says the E-470 authority has set aside several million dollars to lessen the impacts on air quality. The authority has already agreed to pay for street sweeping in local cities (sand on streets that gets kicked up by traffic is a big part of the brown cloud) and will also use chemical de-icers on E-470. "It's all in an effort to do the right thing," says Hogan.

And concerns about air quality haven't stopped the real estate bonanza now unfolding along the new beltway. Many of the landowners along the tollway route have been enthusiastic boosters of E-470, and with good reason. Since ground was broken for the segment of E-470 between Parker Road and 120th Avenue in 1995, land values have skyrocketed. The official groundbreaking for the E-470 extension was held on a Friday the 13th, but there's no bad luck in sight for real estate speculators. Well-known Denver names like Fulenwider, Van Schaack, Fuller & Company and U.S. Home have all been involved in planning major projects along the road.

Landowners have been intimately involved with promoting the tollway since the early 1980s. Englewood developer Burt Heimlich served as chairman of the E-470 board in 1984, when the highway's initial alignment was laid out. He owned property near two interchanges included in that early plan, which was later altered. Current Commerce City planning manager Neil Goodenough worked as a consultant to Heimlich to help get Heimlich's land rezoned near a proposed interchange. After the E-470 board was criticized for being under the thumb of people with personal interests in the route, private landowners were dropped from the board, which is now composed of public officials from Adams and Arapahoe counties and some of the cities along the way. (Heimlich says he sold his property near the highway several years ago and no longer owns land in the vicinity of E-470.)

Other developers like Harvey Alpert and L.C. "Cal" Fulenwider III contributed money to pro-beltway politicians, including Arapahoe County Commissioner Polly Page, who defeated former commissioner Jeannie Jolly in 1994. Jolly and fellow commissioner John Nicholl had infuriated real estate interests by suing the E-470 board over a controversial decision to reroute the tollway west of Gun Club Road, closer to existing subdivisions that presumably would generate more traffic and more tolls. The Colorado Realtors political action committee and the Metro Housing Coalition also made major donations to Page's successful campaign. After Page's election, the commission dropped its opposition to the realignment, angering many residents of the Gun Club Road subdivisions.

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