Rail Roaded

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

"Even in CDOT's own data, they show that by 2025, when they think they can get this done by, the congestion is just as bad as it is today," he adds. "In fact, it's worse. And so it doesn't accomplish anything. It just wastes a whole bunch of money and doesn't take into account all these environmental things that are important to us."

As comments like these began to flood CDOT, Region 1 director Kullman was the man responding. "I would say, with few exceptions, the individuals of Clear Creek County probably know the PEIS document better than anybody else except the preparers themselves," Kullman says. "And so, yeah, they've been vocal, because they have a lot at stake here. It's obviously very difficult to convince them otherwise that we didn't have a pre-determined outlook when we went into this process."

Still, he tried.

Bob Briggs is the engine behind a 2008 election on statewide rail service.
Mark Manger
Bob Briggs is the engine behind a 2008 election on statewide rail service.
Harry Dale has a one-track mind when it comes to trains on I-70.
Mark Manger
Harry Dale has a one-track mind when it comes to trains on I-70.

To detractors, he pointed out that the ridership survey and subsequent traffic analysis involved experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was one of the most comprehensive studies the feds had ever seen. "In fact, the Federal Transit Authority said they would not accept our transit study because they thought it exaggerated too many trips toward transit," he explains. "We're showing 15 to 20 percent transit trips during the peak hours, which is exceedingly high. So from a traffic-modeling perspective, we certainly did look at all the alternatives."

He also explained that the $4 billion threshold was an attempt to be realistic about what could be accomplished over the next 25 years. "We looked at what we had, and we believed we had about $1 billion in the bank for this corridor," says Kullman. "And we just exaggerated that up, thinking, 'My goodness, if we could get really lucky and everything in the world fell into place, it's possible that we could get $3 billion or $4 billion.'"

Kullman defended the $2.65 billion highway-widening estimate as taking into account the mitigation costs associated with the federally required Context Sensitive Solution and Context Sensitive Design processes. "CSS is, I believe, a new term for something the State of Colorado has been doing very well for years," he says. "By evidence, look at Glenwood Canyon, Vail Pass, Berthoud Pass. How we married the highway system with the environment. We addressed all kinds of mitigation. We are absolutely committed to that kind of solution for this corridor. We assumed that kind of treatment throughout the process, and you have to. This corridor is too important to everybody in Colorado. I've lived here my whole life. This is home for me. My parents were raised here and my kids still live here, and it's important to me that we do this right."

The mountain communities were so disturbed by the PEIS findings that in 2005 they, too, formed an organization to oppose them. The I-70 Coalition then held a two-day retreat in SolVista in order to come to consensus on I-70. It was a meeting not unlike the many sessions the participants had sat through seven years earlier.

Again the group came to absolute agreement: Build a transit system in tandem with highway improvements. The "preferred alternatives" they submitted to CDOT now have the endorsement of every jurisdiction from Golden and Jefferson County through Garfield County and Glenwood Springs, up into Pitkin County and Aspen, all the way to Steamboat Springs and Park County. Vail Resorts and Intrawest signed on, too.

Since the retreat, the group has begun to see some movement at CDOT. The agency has recently begun talking about a multi-modal vision for the I-70 mountain corridor and updated the planning outlook for the PEIS from 25 to 50 years, a change Clear Creek County had been asking for since the study began. As a result, the "preferred alternative" now under internal review is still a six-lane highway widening, but that highway would come with preservation for transit.

"We were starting to move a direction, and we were able to see the light," says Kullman. "It took a lot of persuasion for some people. It seemed to be one of the strongest opinions of the people: 'Come on, CDOT. Look a little longer than twenty years. Have a little vision.' We heard that time and time again, as well as the multi-modal, and I believe we've addressed both those things.

"We would start the highway improvements first, but as we do those improvements we will preserve the ability, the functionality, to allow transit to be added," he continues. "Under the current fiscal constraints, it's probably going to take us most of the next twenty years to complete highway improvements, so under our plan, transit would probably come financially after that point. But if something changes and the legislature or the people of the state determine that transit is a more desired alternative, then we could just stop where we're at with the highway and move to the transit."

The irony that this change comes as Bill Ritter takes over the governor's office isn't lost on many. Ritter's newly appointed CDOT director, Russell George, is interested in an advanced-guideway system for the corridor but is pragmatic about the cost and the time frame. He says highway-widening needs to come first. "It's a near-term solution for the problem," George explains. "We need to move automobile traffic, and that means more lanes.

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