This project has moved slower than traffic on I-70 at rush hour — after a thirty-car pileup. On Friday, January 15, the Colorado Department of Transportation released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the I-70 East project, kicking off a thirty-day public review period. According to CDOT, the FEIS is the last draft of an almost thirteen-year study analyzing transportation alternatives for the heavily congested I-70 corridor from I-25 to Tower Road prior to a Record of Decision, which is set to come this summer.
“The FEIS release is a big milestone for our team and for the region,” said CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt in announcing the release of the three-volume FEIS. “It’s important to mark this step in a lengthy process that has involved numerous members of the public, community leaders, local jurisdictions, local agencies and the Federal Highway Administration. We recognize and thank everyone involved for their tireless efforts and look forward to completing the study this year.”
After thirteen years, thirty days to study a three-volume FEIS? Make that five volumes, says Debbie Ortega, the at-large Denver City Council member who attended many of those meetings; she's already asked CDOT to extend the public-review period, and fellow councilmembers Robin Kneich, Rafael Espinoza, Paul Lopez, Paul Kashman, Wayne New and Stacie Gilmore all signed off on her letter requesting an extension that would give the public another thirty days to review the FEIS.
The FEIS is the culmination of years of analysis and public input and involvement, says CDOT, and "shows the results of further evaluation and refinement of three alternatives; updates and modifies previous analyses; identifies a Preferred Alternative; and responds to comments received on the Supplemental Draft EIS from August 2014." The Preferred Alternative in the FEIS is the "Partial Cover Lowered Alternative with Managed Lanes Option," which proposes to add new managed (express) lanes to the interstate, remove the aging fifty-year-old viaduct and lower the interstate between Brighton and Colorado boulevards, and place a four-acre landscaped cover over a portion of the lowered interstate. This option was a compromise when residents and planners alike complained about the impact of replacing the current viaduct that cuts through north Denver with an even larger viaduct, CDOT says.
In fact, Ortega notes, the three volumes of the FEIS are all the comments about that compromise "and how they’re responding to them, and these send you back to the original two volumes....I want to have adequate time to look at it, and make sure the neighborhood has adequate time to look at it."
Denver City Council essentially signed off on that compromise by approving a CDOT cost-sharing agreement last July, before the co-signers of Ortega's request for more time joined the council. "That's when Denver pretty much gave the green light to CDOT," says Ortega. "I didn't support that, either."
Then, as now, she wanted to know about the impact of the project on the people who live nearby. "My primary concern has been to ensure that the work that's going to happen in the ultimate and final record of decision actually addresses the health and safety of the neighborhood," she says. "My staff and I are going through it with a fine-tooth comb. One of the challenges has been that Denver and CDOT have continued to meet on an ongoing basis to negotiate on a lot of things in this final document. It's only through reading it you're going to know what those details are."
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Under this plan, much of the mile-long viaduct between Brighton Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard will be replaced by a new highway constructed below grade, with a 999-foot cover over the highway between Clayton Street and Columbine Street, where the new roadway will come within 125 feet of an existing elementary school. "Major concerns have been raised about the project design process, proposed mitigation, impact on community vitality and the availability of economic opportunity for residents of impacted neighborhoods," says Ortega. "I do not believe an additional thirty days for the neighbors to review the proposal is too much to ask when CDOT has taken thirteen years to produce the FEIS."
And definitely not too much to ask when the affected neighborhoods have lived with I-70 for more than fifty years, she adds: "We have to do right by these neighborhoods."
During the review period, which runs to February 16 (so far — CDOT has not yet responded to Ortega's request), the public can review the FEIS at seventeen metro Denver locations, including libraries, city halls and government offices, as well as online at i-70east.com and codot.gov. Formal public comment periods will be held during three public meetings February 1-3.
The final step in the environmental study process for the project is the preparation of the ROD, which will document the Federal Highway Administration’s selection of a project for implementation on I-70 East. The ROD is expected in summer 2016 and the project itself expected to begin construction in late 2017.