The massive Central 70 and I-25 North projects aren't the only highway construction plans on the cusp of breaking ground along the urban corridor. Also soon to get under way is what's been dubbed "I-25 South Gap," and Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Tamara Rollison says the need for changes along this eighteen-mile stretch between Castle Rock and Monument goes far beyond congestion issues.
"We've had two Colorado State Patrol officers killed on this area of I-25," Rollison notes. "Maybe if they'd had more room to do their job, that would have been the difference between life and death."
Trooper Jaimie Jursevics died while investigating a minor accident on I-25 south of Castle Rock in November 2015, and Trooper Cody Donahue passed away after being struck in the same area one year later.
A few months after the Donahue tragedy, in January 2017, "We started a PEL — that's a Planning and Environmental Linkages study — to set forth what we would do to improve this part of Interstate 25," Rollison explains. "We wanted to know, what are the top concerns, and what could we reasonably do to make the travel experience better? But the most important thing was to save lives."
In addition to the accidents involving Jursevics and Donahue, she goes on, "we've seen an increase in all types of crashes on that part of the interstate in recent years, particularly in the summertime — and the eighteen-mile section between Denver and Colorado Springs has not had any major widening since it was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s."
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Predictably, the study indicated that two lanes in each direction along this portion of the roadway was wholly inadequate. But thanks to the 2017 passage of Senate Bill 267, a nearly $2 billion transportation infrastructure measure, $250 million was earmarked for I-25 South Gap revisions, and additional monies have been pledged by Douglas and El Paso counties. The environmental assessment was released on April 27, with public hearings scheduled for May 14 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds and May 16 at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs.
If all goes well, Rollison predicts, crews will be able to break ground as soon as this summer, with an estimated two and a half years needed to complete the project. On that time line, I-25 South Gap will be completed in 2021.
As for what precisely will be done, Rollison says, "We will widen that corridor by one lane in each direction — and what we are proposing is that the new lane will operate as an express lane. What that means is you would have a choice. You could take the two general-purpose lanes for free, or when you need a more reliable trip, you can take the express lane. If you're driving solo, you'll pay a variable toll, but if you're in a vehicle with three or more people, you'll be able to drive the lane for free."
Rollison points out that "we're doing this in other areas of our system, such as I-25 in Denver and U.S. 36. And we're doing that because we can't build ourselves out of congestion anymore. Traffic eventually outgrows those lanes and there's no longer a choice for a reliable trip. If you need to get to the airport and you're stuck in traffic, maybe you can get on local roads — but there's not an option on the interstate. So what the Colorado Department of Transportation is working on in general is to strongly consider making additional lanes into managed lanes, so that we can make the best use of the capacity we have."
At the same time, Rollison continues, "we're going to significantly expand the shoulders to the inside and the outside, because the shoulders are narrow and this causes incredible safety problems. More shoulder room should help with that and also make for a more comfortable ride. It will give motorists a little more room, and if you have a disabled vehicle, you can get it out of the way instead of leaving part of the back end sticking out into traffic. That can cause significant delays, and it will help with secondary crashes, too."
Widening the South Gap now will pay dividends down the line, Rollison believes. "We're doing most of it within the existing right-of-way, which is one of the reasons we're able to do this so quickly. Once you go outside the right of way, you have to acquire property, causing more impact to the land and the environment, and that can result in significant delays for the project. So we're maximizing what we have and preparing the road as much as we possibly can for an additional lane beyond three. When the time comes that we need to add another lane — and that time will come — we'll have done everything we can to prepare for it."
The same concept will be used for bridges and overpasses. According to Rollison, "We're going to widen or replace seven bridges and build wildlife underpass structures and wildlife fencing — and also add noise walls in two locations, replace some culverts and widen concrete barriers, guardrails and right-of-way fencing. It will look like a new, modern facility when we're done. And the wildlife component is very important. One of the major causes of crashes in the area is when deer cross the interstate. We have some wildlife crossings, but we need to have more, and that's been a big part of our focus."
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While construction is under way, "we'll keep two lanes open in each direction," Rollison emphasizes, "and we'll try to minimize construction traffic as much as possible by doing our big work at night. There will be impacts, but we'll do everything we can to keep traffic moving in each direction in the daytime. There will be times, like when we're replacing bridges, that we'll have to close lanes, but we'll do it in a way to make the least impact on the traveling public, by doing it during the lowest travel times. That's our policy."
Unlike Central 70, Rollison doesn't think there's much danger of motorists using apps such as Waze to jump off the interstate and clog up neighborhoods: "This stretch of I-25 is pretty much through rural areas. It does go through Larkspur and some other towns and communities. But there aren't that many alternate routes to take."
Once I-25 South Gap is given the go-ahead, as is expected, Rollison says the project will move ahead quickly. In her words, "We will be ready, and when we're done, we'll be able to offer a reliable trip well into the future for motorists, and we'll also build roads in such a way that it will prevent deadly crashes. We're doing this predominantly to save lives."
Click to access the Colorado Department of Transportation's I-25 South Gap project page.