CDOT Reconsidering Trains Along I-70?

Last week, Colorado Department of Transportation head Russell George announced that the agency would be reexamining its stance that highway widening is the “preferred alternative” for addressing gridlock along the I-70 mountain corridor.

Eight years ago C-DOT began a study of end the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the highway. Over the coming years, the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, outraged environmentalists and stakeholders who favored a transit solution – like an elevated, high-speed train or monorail. Since then-Governor Bill Owens preferred highway widening, they saw the study as biased in that direction. And in 2004, a draft was released that listed highway widening as the “preferred alternative” for I-70 because its estimated cost fell under the $4 billion cost cap CDOT had arbitrarily set. An advanced guideway system, such as a monorail, was deemed unfeasible because it would cost more than $4 billion.

More recently, when I contacted CDOT about the $25 million, still unfinished study and the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority’s plans to get high-speed rail along the corridor (“Rail Roaded,” March 15), I was told by George and Region I Director Jeff Kullman that six-lane widening was still the “preferred alternative,” but that during the expansion CDOT would preserve a corridor to add transit later. (Likely in twenty years when the highway would be finished.) Governor Bill Ritter, however, was less confident about the recommendation in the pending study. He told me that no decision was final.

Last week, George announced that CDOT would be re-examining the recommendation in the PEIS. He said communities had been shut out of the study process too soon and that a project without their support would struggle to attract the necessary funding. CDOT spokeswoman Stacey Stegman explained that a neutral facilitator will now be selected through the US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution to lead a collaborative stakeholder process, though the agency has yet to determine what that process will look like. “The study will not start over,” she said. “We’ll be looking at alternatives already listed in the study to see what we might have missed, where we have common ground.”

Clear Creek County Commissioner Harry Dale, a vocal CDOT critic and transit supporter, had previously threatened legal action against the agency if highway widening with preservation for transit was offered as the final I-70 recommendation. Now Dale says he’s impressed with the governor and his head of transportation. “[George ] should be commended for his insight, vision and courage to place the PEIS process on hold and bring the stakeholders back to the table,” Dale said.

“Ultimately, if a state sponsored public project will spend billions of taxpayer dollars, it better have broad based public support. Both the Governor and Mr. George clearly recognize that the PEIS process to date does not have the necessary public support to produce a positive outcome. It is unfortunate that the previous administration chose to exclude key stakeholders from participating in the decision making process and ignore years of public opposition to the both the PEIS process and the PEIS outcomes. Had the Owens Administration actually empowered stakeholders and included them in the formation and selection of alternatives, this study may have produced a positive outcome for all stakeholders much more rapidly and for much less than the $25 million spent to date. Clear Creek County looks forward to the consensus building process and believes that it will produce a positive outcome.”

CDOT hopes to release a final recommendation for the I-70 mountain corridor by the end of the year. -- Jessica Centers

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Amy Haimerl