Construction Watch

Inside Federal Boulevard Project 23 Years in the Making

Part of Federal Boulevard that's been marked for reconstruction.
Part of Federal Boulevard that's been marked for reconstruction.
Tonight, Tuesday, July 24, Denver is scheduled to launch a major reconstruction project on Federal Boulevard from West Seventh Avenue to West Holden Place that's been 23 years in the making. City officials say the details shared here align with Vision Zero, an initiative announced by Mayor Michael Hancock last year to eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2030. And they insist the objective is realistic.

"I think by implementing things like our reconstruction project on Federal, we can actually reach zero deaths," says Heather Burke-Bellile, a spokeswoman for Denver Public Works.

Adds Justin Schmitz, Denver's city traffic engineer, "It's an ambitious goal, but it's something we hope and expect to achieve."

Not that it will be easy. The number of driving-related fatalities so far in 2018 puts Denver on target to have one of the most lethal years this century. Indeed, there have been at least forty traffic deaths every year since the dawn of the millennium, and more than double that total on one occasion. Here's the breakdown.
2000 — 85

2001 — 66

2002 — 67

2003 — 56

2004 — 68

2005 — 64

2006 — 41

2007 — 43

2008 — 55

2009 — 40

2010 — 42

2011 — 41

2012 — 40

2013 — 47

2014 — 50

2015 — 58

2016 — 61

2017 — 51

2018 — 29 through June
The Vision Zero website says its safety philosophy "was developed in Sweden in the late 1990s to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries in the transportation system. Sweden has reduced traffic fatalities by half, making it one of the safest places in the world." The concept is founded on five main principles:

1. Traffic deaths and severe injuries are acknowledged to be preventable.

2. Human life and health are prioritized within all aspects of the transportation system.

3. Acknowledgment that human error is inevitable, and transportation systems should be forgiving.

4. Safety work should focus on systems-level changes above influencing individual behavior.

5. Mitigation of speed is recognized and prioritized as the fundamental factor in crash severity.

When asked to elaborate on the Swedish approach, Schmitz acknowledges that "roadways in the U.S. and in Europe aren't exactly apples to apples. But many cities in the U.S. have started to adopt Vision Zero philosophies, which are similar in all forms. They ask: 'Do we have programmatic ways to focus on the safety of all users in the system?'"

One way to do so is to tinker with the length of traffic signals, whose cycles currently last as long as 150 seconds, or two and a half minutes, in Denver. This element is definitely in play on Federal, where signals at several intersections are being changed in an effort to, in the words of Burke-Bellile, "give pedestrians a head start and longer crossing times."

"We're continuing to work on reviewing the signal timing on Federal Boulevard," Schmitz confirms. "We are timing all of our signals on that corridor to make sure we have our pedestrian timing in place and that these platoons of vehicles are all moving down the street together."

click to enlarge An overhead view of a Federal Boulevard reconstruction zone. - DENVERGOV.ORG
An overhead view of a Federal Boulevard reconstruction zone.
Also on Federal's agenda are "new concrete pavement, curb and gutter; three continuous northbound travel lanes and a raised, landscaped median between West 7th Avenue and West Holden Place to improve mobility and safety; installing new sidewalks to enhance access to light rail stations and bus stops; upgrading the traffic signals at West 8th and West 10th Avenues, which includes installing colored crosswalks; adding colored crosswalks at the Holden intersection to enhance pedestrian visibility;" and "planting new trees on the east side of Federal."

According to Schmitz, the crosswalk treatments will accentuate patterns in an effort to "really allow drivers in the area to understand that this is an area of high importance for pedestrians."

Of course, the danger of vehicles to people on foot is a problem in all 78 neighborhoods in Denver. Between 2012 and mid-April 2018, more than 3,000 pedestrians were hit by cars in the Mile High City, as we outlined in a recent post.

During the same period, there were 2,054 accidents involving cars and bicycles.

Given the sprawling nature of this issue, it's appropriate that the Vision Zero action plan is, in Schmitz's words, "a massive document with more than seventy action items."

A lot of them are near schools "where you see students walking around nearby," Burke-Bellile says. "We want to make sure they get to where they need to go safely, whether it's to school of back home. And on Federal, there are a lot of schools along that corridor. That's why the colored and patterned crosswalks are so important."

"Denver Public Schools is involved in our Vision Zero efforts," Schmitz notes. "We all have a piece of making sure our students are safe, and we're trying to strengthen those efforts by communicating within the school system."

click to enlarge A graphic depicting landscaping improvements on Federal Boulevard. - DENVERGOV.ORG
A graphic depicting landscaping improvements on Federal Boulevard.
In addition, he points out, "We've been working on a lot of projects, including additional left turn arrows, operational improvements, striping changes. We worked with the state at Colfax and Franklin on the addition of a turn lane and putting in some additional striping. And we tried to enhance the safety of the South Buchtel corridor by doing some striping changes and alignment changes with a goal of creating a more consistent speed through the corridor and reducing some of the distance that pedestrians have to go. We created a larger buffer along the edge of the street by creating some painted pedestrian areas at Washington, Louisiana and Emerson. The speed limit wasn't changed, but we're hoping to moderate the speed to the actual limit."

Areas of focus in the action plan were determined by "looking for places where there was a substantial overlap between our high-injury network and our communities of concern," Schmitz goes on. "Federal is one of the corridors where you begin to see trends — where we've been seeing a lot more fatalities and serious-injury crashes."

And it's been happening for ages, as evidenced by how long the city has been working on addressing the situation. The first Federal Boulevard corridor plan dates back to 1995. A planning and environmental linkage study followed in 2009 and was approved in 2010, after which preliminary engineering got underway.

This evening, weather permitting (the project's start was pushed back from yesterday, July 23, because of rain), ground will be broken — and that's going to happen a lot more frequently in other locations over the next five years under Vision Zero. Further alterations are anticipated for the period that follows the end of the projects listed in the plan and 2030.

The Federal reconstruction project will take place Mondays through Fridays during the daytime hours, with occasional work overnight or on the weekends. The City of Denver emphasizes that "all work is weather-dependent and subject to change" and "the public's patience and cooperation are greatly appreciated."

Click to read the Denver Vision Zero action plan and the October 2009 planning and environmental linkage study about the Federal Boulevard project.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts