Potential Peña Boulevard Expansion Gets $5 Million Study Grant Over Objections | Westword
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DRCOG Approves Grant for Potential Peña Boulevard Expansion Over Objections

A study looking into the potential expansion of the road leading to Denver International Airport received $5 million, despite complaints from a bike lobby and other activists.
Travel to airport is getting busier and busier.
Travel to airport is getting busier and busier. flydenver.com
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A controversial $5 million grant aimed at funding the potential expansion of Peña Boulevard was approved last week by the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

There's been an ongoing debate over the merits and potential impacts that an expansion would have on the area. Some community members and public officials have voiced their concerns (loudly) over widening Peña, including new at-large Denver City Council member Sarah Parady and State Representative Elisabeth Epps.

While Mike Johnston had said he did not support widening Peña during his mayoral campaign, he's since decided to wait to see the results of the project's transportation and mobility studies.

The future of the thoroughfare is still up in the air, according to Peña Project planner Lisa Nguyen, with plans and alternatives under consideration — and plenty of opportunities for concerned citizens to weigh in. "Certainly the airport is something that people feel passionate about," she notes.

"Back when the airport was built, in 1995, it was built to accommodate fifty million passengers," Nguyen points out. "Now it's the third-busiest airport in the world, and Peña hasn't been updated since 1995."

According to Denver International Airport data, June was the busiest month ever for the airport, with 6,769,608 passengers passing through. Based on these stats, officials expect the airport to start serving 100 million people annually by 2028 — rather than 2032, as originally projected.

While some necessary mobility improvements are already in the works, any expansion of Peña will not occur before 2027 at the earliest, according to Nguyen. Most of the money allocated by DRCOG will be used for a multi-year environmental impact study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, which officials hope to start on sometime next year, she says. DIA will contribute an additional $13.5 million toward the cost of the study.

"That could take anywhere from two to three years," Nguyen says. "[It] would need to take place well before shovels hit the ground."

And in the meantime, groups like the Denver Bicycle Lobby are pushing for the money to go elsewhere.

In a petition with close to 300 signatures sent to Mayor Johnston, residents asked the city to withdraw its support of the $5 million DRCOG funding for Peña expansion plans and redirect that money to the design and construction of the Broadway bike lane from Speer Boulevard to Civic Center Park. Denver had also applied for funding for that project through the $50 million DRCOG allotted for grants last week to metro area projects, but the application was discarded in favor of others — one of them the Peña project.

Though Nguyen says the grant will go to just environmental study and preliminary design, the title of the application is "Peña Capacity Improvements: I70 to E470," and the project scope section reads, "Design and environmental for the addition of one managed lane in each direction between I70 and E470 and the addition of multi-use trails."

"The study seems to be happening in poor faith," suggests David Mintzer, the author of the Denver Bicycle Lobby petition, pointing to the approval of a grant application with that language before the completion of the project's mobility and transportation studies.

According to Mintzer, the bike lobby's petition is less about the Broadway bike lane and more "about not doubling down on highway expansions. There happens to be a very good bike lane project kind of waiting to go, but there are any number of other projects that they could put that funding to."

Mintzer thinks the estimated $277 million it will ultimately cost to expand Peña could be better spent elsewhere. "For that amount of money, they could make a huge investment, whether it be in the bus lines to the suburbs [or adding] capacity to the [A Line]," he says. "Denver has a million plans saying we need to drive less and take the train more, so they should put their money where their mouth is."

DIA is still considering three possibilities for the Peña project — one of which includes no expansion, Nguyen says. While that option would include some updates and repairs, no lane would be added. Another option would add managed lanes that could be tolling or non-tolling, or carpool and bus-only lanes.

The last option would be to add "something like a frontage road," Nguyen says. This would "help with circulation within the local neighborhoods."

Nguyen notes that planners ruled out the addition of a general-purpose lane pretty early on. "It's induced demand at its core," she says, referring to their determination that a general lane would cause more people to drive and do nothing to ease congestion.

Which will the airport pick? Nguyen urges members of the public to share their preferences. "If folks are interested in weighing in, we are open for public comment through September through our virtual open house," she says, adding that more public feedback opportunities will be available during the environmental study.

Find information about the virtual open house here.
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