Citizens interested in the state's $1.8 billion plan to expand I-70 through a ten-mile stretch of north Denver and Aurora had a perplexing choice to make last night. They could attend a "community town hall event" organized by opponents of the project and co-hosted by Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza and former city auditor Dennis Gallagher. Or they could join a Facebook Live session with Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shailen Bhatt, which was peppered with questions and concerns about the highway expansion, wedged between other queries about mountain traffic and HOV lanes.
Some multi-taskers chose to do both, taking a break from presentations at the town hall gathering to fire off queries to CDOT about the enormous costs and impacts of the project. Bhatt responded to several I-70 questions live, but many more spilled over into the comments section on CDOT's Facebook page, occasionally getting responses or rebuttals from agency staffers.
This was the first time CDOT had used Facebook Live to try to engage the public in a conversation with Bhatt, and the scheduling of the event at the same time as the town hall meeting struck some observers as suspicious. "Very convenient timing to host this [feed] during the community meeting," commented RiNo developer Kyle Zeppelin.
But CDOT officials say that the session had been planned for weeks — one post indicates the "live broadcast with our team" had been announced on January 2 — and that they didn't learn of the town hall meeting until recently. The Facebook Live event wasn't supposed to focus on I-70, explains CDOT spokeswoman Rebecca White, but to engage the public on a variety of topics. "We've got a long list of projects across the state that we haven't got funding for," White says. "It was to draw attention to the CDOT system and needs overall."
During the live session, Bhatt stressed the fourteen years of planning and community meetings that had gone into the expansion project, which would replace a crumbling six-lane viaduct with a below-grade, partially covered superhighway expanded to ten lanes. He talked about how a four-acre "cover" of greenery on top of the highway as it moves through the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods would help to reunite communities that had been split by the viaduct construction in the 1960s. But the session was dogged by technical problems, and the challenge of responding online to a stream of questions and recriminations from the project's critics fell to CDOT staff.
Many of the opponents have pushed for re-routing the highway farther north, along the 270 corridor. But CDOT officials have maintained that their own studies of that alternative indicated it would involve costly changes at several major interchanges and create additional mobility issues. That led to heated responses from neighborhood activists, including this one from former mayoral candidate Larry Ambrose:
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For the entire back-and-forth of CDOT's virtual meeting with its critics, go to the CDOT Facebook page.