The Colorado Department of Transportation held a public hearing on April 21 focusing on the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, CDOT's four-year plan that directs funds toward various projects. But testimony from speakers focused almost entirely on a proposed plan to lower the I-70 viaduct in north Denver, and the hearing was dominated by pleas to "ditch the Ditch."
Recently renamed “Central I-70” from “I-70 East,” the long-debated proposal calls for lowering the viaduct below the surrounding neighborhoods of Swansea/Elyria, adding lanes, and building a park over the freeway.
One of the plan’s goals is to decrease congestion — a problem emphasized when at least five scheduled speakers were late to the hearing, apparently because of traffic.
Though a few activists have been fighting the plan for as long as five years, the issue has gained support and publicity in recent months, most notably when the newly re-formed Cross Community Coalition and the Sierra Club sued the EPA, alleging that the agency lowered its emissions standards to accommodate the project.
Twenty-four people spoke out against the project and suggested a reroute; seven were in favor of CDOT’s plan. One lone speaker did not address Central I-70 but asked instead for CDOT to consider “an advanced high-speed magnetic levitation alternative energy transportation system.”
And while the alternative proposal to reroute traffic along interstates 76 and 270 is not quite that space-age, many who spoke in support of it mentioned big-picture sustainability.
Kate Armstrong, a researcher and community stakeholder who has been analyzing similar projects elsewhere in the country, was one of the first to take the stand.
"It seems that every city that has widened their highway through the middle of the city has wound up with a worse traffic problem, a bigger snarl, and everybody very much unhappy with the results, especially since it took so long to do it,” she said.
“The best state DOTs are improving mobility these days, not by adding more and more lanes of expensive-to-maintain asphalt, but by thoughtfully examining alternatives,” added Becky English, a sustainability consultant and clean-energy activist, citing a need to embrace “new-urbanism alternatives.”
Residents of Elyria, Swansea and Globeville who spoke said there was more at stake than smart infrastructure.
“Buenos días,” began Jorge Mérida, representing the Cross Community Coalition. “To start with, no one, none of you, I assume...speaks my language. My mother’s language, which is Spanish. That is the situation in the neighborhood I’m representing,” which, he said, has “been long neglected.”
Ending his statement, Mérida asked: “Are you going to be conscious of the existence of our people instead of just thinking business?”
James Chaney, a former engineer, looked back into the neighborhood’s history.
“Fifty and sixty years ago, when I-70, was built, this neighborhood was exploited because it was a neighborhood of immigrants from Eastern Europe,” he said. “Now we have a new generation of immigrants who are being exploited because...they are powerless, they are without voice, and have no political power and have no wealth.”
With an environmental-health lawsuit in progress, proponents of the reroute said they saw the existing and proposed future of I-70 as a hazard to communities along the highway. Their comments came after a recent statement from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx that highways have disproportionately blighted low-income and minority neighborhoods across the country.
While many of those who testified in favor of the Central I-70 project might seem at odds with the opponents, their testimonies echoed similar concerns.
“We are home to I-36, I-25, I-76, and 270. We have more than our share of public transportation and the impact of such,” said Norma Frank, who recently finished a ten-year stint as the president of the Mapleton Public School Board of Education in Adams County. “By adding to an already burdened community, it is not a fair or just plan.”
Adams County commissioner Steve O’Dorisio read from a letter submitted by the county in March, which expressly opposed “any alternatives that would realign the entire interstate through Adams County.”
His county, he said, believes that a reroute would impact “numerous communities and economic development in our entire area.”
CDOT is expected to sign off on the next stage of the plan this summer.