Vroom With a View
If you decelerate just past the 20th Street exit going north on I-25--although you really shouldn't, as this creates "curiosity slowing"--you will see a simple sign: Fortieth Anniversary Valley Highway. One recent Friday morning, a time capsule was buried beneath the sign. Assembled on a grassy bank just east of a hair-raisingly small shoulder were federal and state highway spokesmen and dignitaries, three professional ditch diggers, time-capsule-assembly specialist Ivan Frank, several TV cameramen and a high-tech, black vinyl lectern with a microphone whose acoustics were overwhelmed by the noise of the rushing traffic.
"It's always nice to go to the edge of the freeway on a Friday with some friends," quipped KHOW radio's Don Martin, who then took off into his 36-year history as an airborne traffic reporter. "I was the fifth traffic reporter in the entire United States," Martin recalled. "In those days, I soon discovered there was no traffic, and I had to think of other things to talk about."
Those innocent memories dispensed with, Martin launched into a diatribe for which he is well-known and tolerated. If something is not done about the congestion along I-25's southeast corridor, he pronounced, "people will be shooting each other on the freeway out of sheer frustration." This could happen any day now, he warned, and if light rail is not expanded to more sensible locations, politicians will pay the price when they are "thrown out on their ears."
With that, Dan Hopkins, public information officer for the Colorado Department of Transportation, thanked Martin warmly for his remarks. Hopkins, who has nearly thirty years of traffic-related experience of his own, remains in awe of Martin and his intimate involvement with I-25. When it comes to highways, history is crucial.
"A lot of it has been lost," Hopkins explained, "which is why we are burying this capsule today. We will unearth it ten years from now, on the highway's fiftieth anniversary, and find items that were pertinent to today."
Among those items: pamphlets, reports and maps, including "Our Nation's Highways," and "State of Colorado's Highways," as well as vintage aerial views and a certain reporter's indecipherable notebook.
"Will we still be facing the same issues in ten years?" Hopkins asked. "Will we have made any progress?" Too modest to make his own grand predictions, Hopkins allowed as to how he would probably still be working for the Colorado Department of Transportation a decade from now and had already marked the capsule-unearthing date in his Day-Timer.
The obligatory series of dirt-shoveling photos ensued, after which orange-vested CDOT flag men and women directed the crowd back to their cars and out onto the highway.
Happy fortieth birthday, I-25.
I was only ten years old when the first part of the highway was completed," Dan Hopkins remembers. "I've never forgotten it. I'm a Denver native and a history buff, and I saw it all happen."
In brief, what happened was this: Although the idea of a freeway paralleling the South Platte River had been discussed as early as 1938, construction on the road did not start until ten years later. By 1956 the part of the highway that runs beside the river--from 52nd Avenue to Santa Fe Drive--had been completed, but funds to do the rest of the job were scarce. On June 29 of that year, President Dwight Eisenhower approved the Interstate Highway Program and saved the day--"During the war, he saw how the German autobahns worked, and he realized we didn't have that here," Hopkins theorizes--and by 1958 I-25 stretched to the city limits, at Evans Avenue.
It was then that Hopkins's grandfather decided to take his grandson and his 1956 Chevrolet for a first spin on the new highway. "We got on at Sixth Avenue, and I'll be darned if he didn't get going the wrong way," Hopkins recalls. "And he continued on for some time. It was memorable. It was also kind of creepy."
But it did not dissuade Hopkins from devoting his career to highways. Using his University of Denver journalism degree, he started out with radio traffic reports, spent ten years as spokesman for the state chapter of the Automobile Association of America, then moved on down the road to CDOT. While boosterishly proud of the "wonderful transportation system we have built," Hopkins is also well aware of the snarl of problems he calls "I-25's midlife crisis."
"I think there was a period when the construction was actually finished," he explains, "but now we've hit the reconstruction phase, and it seems like we are always working on our highways. All these pavements, bridges and viaducts have a design life of about twenty years, maybe thirty if you're lucky, and you have to start rebuilding. All of I-25 has been repaved a gazillion times."
Not only is the Valley Highway old, it's small. "No one could possibly have imagined the congestion we have now," Hopkins says. "This was the solution to congestion. Every growth projection ever made was wrong."
Traffic has gone from 21,000 vehicles on the highway on a typical weekday in 1956 to 205,000 in 1996--except that weekdays are no longer typical. They've expanded to include so many rush hours in so many directions that they can barely be identified, much less tabulated and studied. "My personal nightmare is that the Rockies, the Broncos, the Avalanche and Elitch's will all have events on the same day," Hopkins sighs, knowing he is the one who will get the phone calls.
But his worries don't end there. Consider the 1,733-foot bridge over Broadway that should have been replaced yesterday. Where will the money come from? Where will the cars be diverted? And how can a city of Westerners, to whom a car is not just a ride but a shining symbol of personal liberty, be convinced that the time for light rail is now and that this means them?
"We're at the point where we just can't widen highways forever," Hopkins warns. "The day the new lane opens is the day it's saturated."
Four decades ago, the fellow who sat in Hopkins's chair had a much easier time of it. "All he had to worry about was teaching people how to drive on the freeway," Hopkins says. "No one knew how to do it, previously."
It is impossible to overstate how difficult it can be for an entire city to learn how to drive on its first freeway, even when that freeway is only five or six miles long.
The AAA's Rocky Mountain Motorist magazine covered little else at the time. A headline from September 1958: "Expressway Driving Stumps Denverites." Residents were "floundering on the still-incomplete Valley Highway," the Motorist reported, citing the following roadblocks to smooth motoring:
1. Greater speed.
2. Heavier traffic.
3. Different rules, particularly regarding YIELD signs. Debates raged--in the pages of the Motorist and at lively AAA meetings--about whether YIELD meant one should give way slowly to oncoming traffic, come to a complete stop and wait for a chance to "aim for the gap," or get out of one's car altogether to "be a Samaritan" and help any stranded motorists who might be scattered about the shoulder. Whatever the official etiquette, the Motorist concluded, "the new YIELD signs are not being obeyed well. Despite such signs at the foot of every ramp, many drivers are entering the highway without once glancing back. Drivers are getting lost and sitting for minutes behind YIELD signs."
Lest anarchy reign, the AAA produced a new book, How to Drive, and recommended that all members read it. And the organization invited the public, over and over again, to showings of a colorful, eleven-minute film that purported to deliver the inside dope on the mysterious business of freeway driving. Those who attended learned such technical (and now long-gone) jargon as "spaghetti works," which appears to have meant "almost impossibly complex off-ramp."
By 1959 the AAA had switched its area of concern to speed limits and the enforcement thereof. "The No. 1 villain on the road is the heavy-footed driver," it announced that March, while still asserting that "Slowpoke Worse Hazard Than Speeder on Valley Highway." Slowpokes wrote in to protest being ticketed for driving slower than 40 miles per hour on I-25, but city traffic engineer Jack Bruce told the AAA he planned to stand firm. After that, the AAA adopted Bruce's position as its own: On the highway, Rocky Mountain motorists should drive faster than 40 mph and slower than 65 mph. They should also learn to "glance in the rear-view mirror at frequent intervals."
Drivers did, and by December they were complaining about all the tailgaters they'd spotted in those mirrors. "We had the unpleasant experience of having a loaded cattle transport follow our car within 10 or 15 feet of our rear bumper," wrote one I.W. Roberts, who added that the next day he'd seen a photo of an overturned meat truck in one of the daily papers. This, he concluded, was the kind of thing that could be expected if motorists did not maintain a proper distance.
In "Commemorating the Opening of the Denver Valley Highway," CDOT presented a much rosier image, complete with a photograph of 42 Girl Scouts planting crested wheat along an embankment near the present Mousetrap. Even if you can't drive, the 1958 brochure suggested, why not indulge in an armchair visit to the lovely new highway? "Here's how to enjoy your tour. Just imagine you are driving your car, carefully, of course, and with due regard for all the signs, and are entering each photo from the top of the picture..."
Many scenic views of asphalt later, it concludes: "This is the end of the tour of the Valley Highway. We hope you enjoyed your trip."
Sky Spy traffic reporter Don Martin has taken this trip many times. "I'm an old guy," he points out. "You have to be, to fly 36 years over the Valley Highway."
But in fact, Martin got started before that, when he and his best friend, both high school seniors, drove along the Platte River in 1949, trying and failing to imagine the coming freeway.
"There were cottonwood trees all along the side of the river," Martin recalls. "It was very quiet. There were a few people living on the banks of the river who came from Skid Row or the railroads, and the viaducts crossed over the top. We thought, boy, Denver's gonna be a big city, and we decided we were both going to be policemen and patrol the new freeways."
After a tour of duty in Korea, where he learned to fly, Martin went to work for the Denver Police Department's auto-theft detail. His best friend became a patrolman and was killed in the line of duty. This, combined with the fact that "you starve to death as a police officer," threw Martin into broadcasting. As news director at radio station KIMN-FM, then a rock-and-roll outlet, he decided traffic was "the coming thing."
Flying over the nascent Valley Highway with no traffic to report and time on his hands, Martin began rattling off editorials. His subjects ranged from the serious issues of the day to pre-Doppler-radar weather reports. "I'd look out on the horizon for a thunderstorm, and when I saw it, I'd say something like, 'If you live in Arvada, you'd better get your clothes off the clothesline--this storm'll hit you in fifteen minutes.'"
By 1963 traffic had picked up, and Martin entered into an informal agreement with Denver's first highway police officer, Dick Lundquist. "He would listen to me on KIMN," Martin says, "and if I saw an accident, I'd say a code word. When he heard the code, he'd call the police radio room and say, 'I have an accident report from a citizen.' He didn't tell them it came from me, because they didn't want to work with some dumb civilian."
Soon traffic was so heavy that there was no time for such leisurely communication. Denver was on its way to becoming another Los Angeles, Martin determined, and the only thing that saved it from such a fate was the occasional economic collapse.
But the city isn't out of the woods yet. "We're in serious trouble," Martin insists today. "The southeast quadrant of I-25 is a gridlocked parking lot, from downtown to the Tech Center. If they don't widen the Valley, people will get to work faster by walking on the tops of their cars.
"And can you imagine? We started out as a sleepy little town with four miles of concrete through the middle. Now we're a nightmare."
Nightmare? "Yeah, it can get interesting," says Richard Currier, "Captain Courtesy." Currier drives one of the twelve tow trucks that make up the Mile High Courtesy Patrol, a service provided free to motorists by CDOT during morning and afternoon weekday rush hours. A former Air Force disaster-relief specialist, his work experience includes extracting a furious bear from an overturned dumpster and watching a female moose stomp a Volkswagen Bug.
Compared to this, aiding the constantly stranded motorists of I-25 is relatively tame. "You never want to see someone get hurt," Currier says, "but you know it's going to happen, and there's nothing you can do about it. Meanwhile, on a slow day you hope for a flat tire, just to kill the monotony."
Indeed, Currier's route, which stretches from 20th Street on the north to Colorado Boulevard on the south, can seem numbingly routine. Driving an enormous flatbed truck loaded with tools, Dr Pepper cans and orange highway cones, Currier tries to stay parallel with his assigned partner, who drives a CDOT sling truck. If a major accident develops, both trucks can converge on it in minutes. Otherwise, the drivers communicate via scanner in the universally incomprehensible language of shortwave-radio operators.
"You learn the sector you drive in your sleep," Currier says. "How to turn around in the middle of gridlock, to take a side street if you absolutely have to. The 17th Avenue exit is a great one. If you'll notice, no one uses it for anything."
At the beginning of one morning shift in mid-July--a time of year known for overheated engines, irate motorists and dehydrated dogs in passenger seats--Currier leaves 20th Street and heads south. Dispatchers from the Denver Police Department, Denver Fire Department and CDOT murmur at him simultaneously from three scanners. Allusions are made to a dire situation on the Pecos off-ramp at I-70 West. A car fire may or may not be connected to a "weaving pedestrian."
Along Currier's route, there is just one small problem: The magnetic CDOT sign that is supposed to adhere to his tow truck at all times has slipped a foot.
6:37 a.m.: A red Mazda convertible shoots across three lanes of traffic toward the West Sixth Avenue on-ramp. Currier responds with the time-honored "Laaaady, what th'?"
6:41: Currier notes a lone tire, with rim, on the road's shoulder. It wasn't there yesterday. Hmmm.
6:44: A private tow truck is spotted picking up the remains of a two-car, pre-rush-hour collision. "Crunched good," Currier observes.
6:47: Currier discusses consumer cell phones. "I'm not sure they're helpful. We have people calling in a four-car collision with injuries. It turns out to be one guy with a flat tire and three guys trying to help."
6:49: The trucker behind Currier leans on his horn for a full minute. "We drive fifty miles an hour. It makes people mad. We get honked," he explains. "Too bad."
7:09: Speer Boulevard, southbound. A woman in a white station wagon is pulled over at the side of the road, chatting on a cell phone. When Currier approaches, the woman tries to wave him away. Currier perseveres. The woman turns out to be a KOA traffic reporter reporting live on...traffic. "Hmm," Currier says. "She told me to leave her alone. Well. It doesn't hurt to ask."
It doesn't always help, either. One of the enduring frustrations faced by the Courtesy Patrol is a driver too afraid to accept their help. "A person will be out of gas," Currier says. "We offer them gas. They don't want to take it, because the reputation of a tow-truck driver is that there's a catch--nothing is free. One of our guys buys those cheap red plastic gas cans, fills them with gas and just hands them over and drives away."
At least half the time, Currier says, when he explains that the Courtesy Patrol is a free service, the stranded motorist will respond: "Huh?"
"And I will repeat, 'It's free,'" Currier says. "They usually have trouble understanding that."
Somehow, Currier's orange CDOT vest, though designed to soothe and protect, scares as many people as it pacifies. "Some of them sit in their cars crying and cussing, terrified they're going to jail because they've had a flat tire," Currier says sadly. "I don't speak much Spanish, but I try to reassure them. And then the police show up, and they really get upset."
7:15: CDOT sprinklers run amok, and cars are being treated to an impromptu wash. Currier calls in a report of "wacky sprinklers."
7:18: A country-dancing enthusiast (from the looks of his bumperstickers) is trying to attach a doughnut-sized spare tire to a Buick Park Avenue at the Washington-Emerson off-ramp. Currier pulls up and takes over. "You stay out of the way," he tells the driver. "I'll take care of this." He does, in less than five minutes.
7:29: Traffic in the Narrows, an area between Broadway and University, is running at a typical 3 mph; Currier's partner has just hauled away a pickup truck that gave up the ghost here. "This is our own little Bermuda Triangle," Currier says. "It is the place of choice for breaking down. People just seem to throw up their hands and say, 'Oh, this is a good spot."
7:35: Currier is becoming apprehensive about today's afternoon shift. According to Courtesy Patrol theory, if nothing bloody or life-threatening happens in the morning, twice as much will come down in the afternoon. "One time this lady and her husband got into a domestic, and she got out of the car at fifty miles an hour and broke her leg," he remembers. "I closed off two lanes of traffic and stabilized her while the medics came. Stabilize means I stand there saying, 'You will lay down, and you will not move.'"
7:45: Currier enumerates some things Courtesy Patrol drivers look out for. "Loose loads, idiots who can't drive, things dropped on the road. You name it, they drop it. In the last week, I picked up couches, chairs, tires, a canoe and a stove. Kids running across the highway to sneak into Elitch's. Anything that would impede the flow."
Across from Denny's, just off the 38th Avenue/Park Avenue exit, an infectious, on-the-job enthusiasm is spreading from the large, molded-concrete CDOT building, past the huge piles of sand and into the bright-orange trucks of the highway landscaping crews.
"We're summer people," says landscape Maintenance Supervisor I Kama Davidson, resplendent today in a safety-cone orange T-shirt and jeans. "We love summer! We do our best work in summer! So this year, we thought: Why not have a company picnic at one of the barns?"
"She calls them the barns," adds Greg Galvez, landscape Maintenance Worker II for the original portions of I-25 and points west. "Isn't that neat?"
Since Davidson comes from ranching stock, she can call it a barn if she wants to. There's no denying that she puts on quite a picnic. "We invited some of the engineers," she says. "We had so much food."
"We're talking volume," Galvez adds.
Although Galvez has been with CDOT for eleven years, he scrupulously avoids mention of the time before Davidson became his supervisor one and a half years ago. In those days, the inference is clear, there were no picnics. And there was certainly not this much enthusiasm for the job.
"We're taxpayers," Davidson offers, as she and Galvez pile into an orange truck for a tour of I-25. "We pay our own wages. It's not just the traveling public we're working for, it's ourselves."
"You think: 'My pride's at stake,'" Galvez adds. "Not only that, the department budget's at stake. Not only that, people think state workers are lazy bums. You think, Paula Woodward's gonna want to come out and film us having two-hour-long coffee breaks. And you think, 'No way.'"
"Look at this!" Davidson almost shouts, as the truck screeches to a stop. On the east side of the West 38th Avenue exit, for chrissakes, is a genuine wildflower meadow, complete with a thriving day-lily bed and a tiny wetland with its own cattails. "And ducks!" Davidson says. Birds flocking to this marsh with traffic roaring past less than ten feet away? "Yes!" she insists. "Not until fall, maybe, but they'll come."
By then, though, Davidson and Galvez will have turned their attention to more pressing matters--such as the 20th Street exit's complicated landscaping issues. The mosaic tiles made by neighborhood children and grouted onto the noise barrier walls--those are good. The weeds poking through the buffalo grass xeriscape--"Frankly, I'm ashamed to show you," Davidson admits. "We are very upset about it. We hired a contractor to maintain this landscape, and they are having bankruptcy troubles, and we have been told not to touch a blade of grass until it's settled. The guys on Greg's crew say: 'Kama, please let us mow!' And I have to say no."
Things are cheerier at the confluence of Colfax and Federal, where four enormous elms have survived forty years of beetles, emissions and blight. And at West Eighth Avenue, between heavy traffic and an industrial strip lined with auto wreckers, Galvez proudly points out a narrow right-of-way boasting wild roses, day lilies, dry-mortared flagstone walls and, best of all, a solar-powered irrigation system.
"My life is basically the constant tweaking of irrigation systems," he states. "To me, water is like a fine wine."
"It is," Davidson says. "He means it. Hey, isn't this that walnut tree that guy from your crew started as a seedling? And he brought it in here and planted it and..."
"Look," Galvez says, suddenly grim. "Bums." He points through a chain-link fence under the Auraria Parkway off-ramp. Sure enough, a small congregation of men has gathered around an open fire, even though the temperature is in the nineties. "They catch my irrigation systems on fire," Galvez says. "They pull apart my valve boxes when they need water. And the gangs. They have no pride, which I don't understand at all. At all."
"They paint their graffiti all over," Davidson continues. "We have to mow through their empty spray cans. They were growing marijuana here last year. We pulled up their plants, and in retaliation they pulled up our irrigation pipes and took our brass nozzles and hocked them." At which point the wrecked irrigation lines started spritzing traffic and an outraged public flooded the phone lines.
Along the infamous Narrows, the irrigation lines are nearly forty years old and run down the middle of the highway where the median strip used to be. "If one breaks, and one usually does, you have to close a lane of traffic, tear up the roadway and try to find the leak," Galvez says. "But that's okay. You have those lovely 36-inch cones to protect you."
But this line of chat is too defeatist for Galvez and Davidson. If they dwelled on hardship and failure, would they be here today? After all, Davidson's knowledge of farm machinery and team spirit helped propel her through the ranks from lowly snow-removal technician to supervisor of more than fifty highway workers. "I can also shoot a 106 Howitzer to bomb avalanches," she points out. "I've learned a lot."
"She knows a lot more about asphalt than most people, certainly than me," Galvez agrees. As for his own devotion to the transportation department, Galvez credits his wife--who comes from "highway people" and works in CDOT public relations--as well as his father back home in Trinidad. "He was a public servant--county assessor for Huerfano County," Galvez recalls. "He always said you gotta take care of things. He would say this at the dinner table, and I would roll my eyes and wish he would shut up. But after a while he brainwashed me, and now, I guess, I think you gotta take care of things, too."
"I guess," Davidson confirms.
The orange truck turns and heads back to the barn. The afternoon rush hour is beginning, a time when no landscape supervisor would be caught dead by the side of the road. Tomorrow morning, after the morning commuters have done their damage--rolling over sprinkler heads, flinging McMuffin bags out windows--it will be time to start again.
"We're so encouraged, we're competitive," Davidson says. "We can even be a little protective and stingy. It's our highway, after all. And my guys will tell you they don't compete with each other, but they do. Greg, for instance. He has plans. He keeps saying that in another few years they won't call it the Mousetrap, they'll call it the Oasis."
"I do say that," Galvez admits.
For a while there is silence, with green shoulders and concrete walls passing in a flash.
"It's going to be beautiful," Davidson sighs.
"Yes," says Galvez, "it is.
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