Rail Roaded

Finding a solution to I-70 traffic has been one long, strange trip. But the end could be in sight.

In 1998, more than 200 people gathered to decide on the wording of a final recommendation for I-70. "All these people with very competing interests were at that meeting, and nobody had a great deal of trust that everybody was going to abide by this language," recalls JoAnn Sorensen, who was a Clear Creek County commissioner at the time. "So when the final reading of the language came out, people were strategically positioned. People who didn't ordinarily stand next to the highway people or the ski-industry people were standing there, and if anybody would have raised their hand to object to the language, it would have been a fistfight."

Neely was positioned next to a representative of the ski industry when the engineer who led the study read the statement calling for mass transit as the long-term solution, as well as highway improvements in the short term to address pinch points and safety problems. A CDOT official asked if anyone had an objection.

Silence. Then an eruption of applause.

Mary Jane Loevlie and Cynthia Neely share a common cause: protecting Clear Creek County from being consumed by I-70.
Mark Manger
Mary Jane Loevlie and Cynthia Neely share a common cause: protecting Clear Creek County from being consumed by I-70.

The people in that room thought they'd reached their final solution for I-70, but the battle was only beginning.

At the first-ever meeting of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority in January, executive director Bob Briggs sat beside his newly elected chairman, Harry Dale. After Briggs advised the authority members to remember this historic day so they could look back on it fondly while the world marveled at their accomplishment, Dale -- in his typically understated tone -- said, "I think, as everybody knows, this is extremely important to Colorado."

When, a few minutes later, Briggs casually mentioned that he had just received a call from CDOT about a meeting the next day pertaining to their project, Dale looked livid. This was the first he had heard of the meeting. Apparently, CDOT had an issue with the RMRA wanting to expand the scope of its feasibility study to Grand Junction instead of stopping in Dotsero.

The agency was going to discuss how the change might affect the funding the group had been promised. The short notice wouldn't give Dale time to rearrange his schedule. He asked why he was just hearing about the meeting, and Briggs said the phone call was the first he'd heard of it, too. No more surprises, Dale told the group. They were going to have to stay on top of everything to avoid getting -- pardon the pun, he sighed -- derailed.

"It shouldn't be like this," Dale said. "These guys have no vision. They're Neanderthals when it comes to vision."

If not for the fact that he himself is one, Dale would have a distaste for politicians. He certainly has a distaste for bureaucracy. The Clear Creek County commissioner can speak for hours about how he believes CDOT has skirted federal rules and guidelines, misled the public and made a mockery of its mission and vision statements. Dale has his own website, www.trainsnotlanes.info, dedicated to criticizing CDOT. It's also where he's compiled the hundreds of hours of research he's done on highway congestion, transit technology and public processes. That way, he knows where to find that Federal Highway Administration report on collaborative problem-solving, should he ever need it, or that environmental stewardship guide CDOT commissioned in 2003. Most every page is headed with the tagline "CDOT -- Creating Tomorrow's Problems Today."

"The more you study this, the more you find the way these guys are going about this is wrong," Dale says. "And it's not just their pursuit of a single alternative, but that single alternative is the wrong alternative for Colorado. And how aggressively they pursue it when there's so much data and information out there that their process was bad and their solution was bad. They're counting on people to not do the research and not understand the issue and support the kind of knee-jerk reaction that says we just need to widen the highway."

There's a lot of animosity toward CDOT along the I-70 corridor; Dale just happens to be one of the most vocal critics. Residents can't understand why it's been almost ten years since they completed the Major Investment Study and they're still fighting CDOT for a transit system.

The final MIS report recommending transit was released in December 1998, just after Bill Owens had been elected governor. It was widely known that Owens, a former oil and gas lobbyist, favored highways over other transportation modes, so transit supporters had hedged their bets in case he won the election. In the spring of 1998, they'd pushed a bill through the state legislature that created the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority, which was to examine various transit alternatives that would work in the steep grades and extreme weather of the mountain corridor.

At the same time, CDOT was supposed to embark on another survey of the I-70 issue, one that focused on transportation alternatives and their impact along the entire corridor, from C-470 to Glenwood Springs. The transportation agency had committed to the effort as part of the final recommendations in the 1998 MIS report, and it was a major concession, because the new Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement would put transit and highway alternatives on equal footing by analyzing options in the context of a much larger area. That would allow the cost of transit to be spread out instead of concentrated on just a few miles of highway.

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