Opponents of the I-70 East project are knocking on doors in Elyria and Swansea, telling residents that they can still comment on the proposal to replace the aging I-70 viaduct in their neighborhood with a partially buried, much wider highway.
The project is years in the making, and thanks to Denver City Council representative Debbie Ortega, the Colorado Department of Transportation has extended the public-comment period for the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) until March 2.
That's why Fran Frainaguirre is visiting houses in Elyria, greeting residents in English and semi-fluent Spanish, asking them if they’ve heard of the I-70 East project and telling them how to fill out a comment form.
"It doesn’t matter if you’re for it or against it,” she tells them. “Just participate.”
Despite her nonpartisan spiel, Frainaguirre definitely opposes the project.
She is a member of the I-70 Reroute Planning Committee, a group led by Thaddeus J Tecza that has been active in challenging the highway expansion from the start.
The group is advocating for a reroute of the highway that would move traffic north of the residential Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods.
“We are simply a group of people who believe that I-70 should never have been routed through Denver," explains Tecsa.
"It is environmentally and economically harmful to all Denver citizens, especially to those living and going to school within 300 meters of the highway.”
As she visits residents, Frainaguirre asks if family members or neighbors have had issues with asthma.
One school holiday, most people she meets are kids who have lived in the neighborhood for less than a decade and many aren't aware of any lung problems.
A woman who's lived in the same house for thirty years, however, says she suffers from asthma and COPD, despite never having smoked.
Air quality and the demographics of who might be affected are central to opponents' argument.
CDOT’s Impact Study has projected no change in highway-related pollution between now and 2035 if the new plan is adopted.
But Tecza and his group see the proposal as a matter of environmental justice for communities with high concentrations of Latin families.
Back on the street, Frainaguirre is joined by Dorothy Garcia and Nikte Contreras, a student at the University of Colorado Denver whose masters' thesis focuses on development’s affect on communities that are already at risk.
In her words, “This community has been marginalized."
She adds her view that authorities have misled “some residents to believe that they do not have a say or that the project is a done deal.”
The opponents hear that sentiment a lot as they knock on doors.
At a house less than a block from the existing viaduct, a resident tells them that he does not believe they can change the project.
“He says they’ll do whatever they want,” says Contreras, translating the resident’s response.
“We believe the proposed widening of the highway will constitute a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in that it will have a disproportionate negative impact on low income and minority communities living in proximity to the highway,” Tecza says.
But CDOT defends its plan as the result of thirteen years of study and discussion.
Over that time, says spokeswoman Rebecca White, the department has examined every possible alternative, including a possible reroute.
The number one concern,” she explains, “is that if you remove that section of I-70, you know, what needs to go in its place?”
White says there are about 1,200 businesses along the stretch of I-70 between I-25 and I-225, including “some of the nation’s largest distribution centers.”
According to the FEIS, removing the highway would mean trucks and and other vehicles would take surface streets through neighborhoods, ultimately creating a greater hazard.
The current plan has been endorsed by Adams County, Commerce City and Denver officials.
The stakeholders argue in a letter that the reroute would remove a “key catalyst” to the re-investment in the National Western Center, “impact the region’s access to major attractions” and “significantly impact and alter economic growth planned for the area.”
The letter ends with a plea: “We implore you to keep in mind how realigning I-70 along the 76 and 270 interstates would negatively impact the region and urge you to move forward with the proposed solution.”
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In spite of this, opponents press on.
“We are urging people to go to the I-70 East EIS website before March 2 and to submit a comment,” Tecza says. “CDOT should not proceed to a Record of Decision until they have done so.”
You can submit comments here.