Just days after Colorado Department of Transportation officials received a long-awaited final okay from the Federal Highway Administration to proceed with a $1.8-billion makeover of ten miles of Interstate 70 through north Denver and Aurora, opponents of the highway expansion are holding a "community town hall event" tonight to discuss what options remain for putting the brakes on the project.
There's plenty to talk about.
The plan, which would replace a crumbling six-lane viaduct with a below-grade, partially covered superhighway expanded to ten lanes, has been a source of controversy and protest in neighborhoods flanking I-70 for years. CDOT has held numerous community meetings over the past decade and contends that the proposal, which includes four acres of greenspace on top of the covered portion, will help to reunite struggling neighborhoods in northeast Denver that were cleaved in two when the viaduct was built half a century ago.
But a determined corps of community and environmental activists have pushed for the highway to be rerouted through industrial areas farther north, claiming the construction will mean more disruption, pollution and demolition of precious housing stock in some of Denver's most affordable communities — and, in the long run, redevelopment schemes that will drive longtime residents out of the area.
An artist's rendering of the new highway's below-grade route through north Denver, with a greenway cover next to Swansea Elementary School.
The public-interest group COPIRG has denounced the expansion as a boondoggle. The Sierra Club has joined with community groups in north Denver to file a federal lawsuit against the EPA, claiming that the agency lowered its pollution standards in order to push forward the expansion. Earthjustice and other groups filed a civil-rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, saying that the project disproportionately impacted poor and predominantly Hispanic communities. (The investigation of that complaint has reportedly been completed, but no decision has been announced.)
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A 2014 report from the Denver Department of Environmental Health found that Denver residents in areas adjacent to I-70 experience higher rates of heart diseases than residents in many other areas of the city. But objections to the highway expansion have extended well beyond the neighborhoods in its path. The project is proceeding hand-in-glove with a contentious $300 million package of storm-drainage improvements in Denver, which will involve converting City Park Golf Course into a "detention area" (and removing hundreds of trees) — and re-routing runoff that would otherwise flood the I-70 "ditch" so that it heads into the South Platte, right through a heavily polluted Superfund site. Critics of the drainage plan, many of whom started to receive 20 percent hikes in their stormwater bills last week, contend that the I-70 expansion has been the main impetus for the plan, which has also drawn lawsuits. A petition addressed to Mayor Michael Hancock, asking that the golf course be spared, has drawn more than 3,000 signatures — and many of the caustic comments express dismay at the I-70 expansion as well.
Tonight's meeting of "Ditch the Ditch" proponents will be co-hosted by two of CDOT's most vocal critics, Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza and former city auditor Dennis Gallagher. Formal presentations will be followed by an "open format" Q&A session.
Things kick off at 6 p.m. at the Denver Bookbinding Company, 1401 West 47th Avenue. City Park Friends and Neighbors has announced plans for a second town hall on Tuesday, February 7, at Messiah Community Church, 1750 Colorado Boulevard, from 6 to 9 p.m.