Rail Roaded

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The final MIS report recommending transit was released in December 1998, just after Bill Owens had been elected governor. It was widely known that Owens, a former oil and gas lobbyist, favored highways over other transportation modes, so transit supporters had hedged their bets in case he won the election. In the spring of 1998, they'd pushed a bill through the state legislature that created the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority, which was to examine various transit alternatives that would work in the steep grades and extreme weather of the mountain corridor.

At the same time, CDOT was supposed to embark on another survey of the I-70 issue, one that focused on transportation alternatives and their impact along the entire corridor, from C-470 to Glenwood Springs. The transportation agency had committed to the effort as part of the final recommendations in the 1998 MIS report, and it was a major concession, because the new Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement would put transit and highway alternatives on equal footing by analyzing options in the context of a much larger area. That would allow the cost of transit to be spread out instead of concentrated on just a few miles of highway.

Owens's new CDOT administration, however, decided to skip the PEIS and widen the highway to six lanes between Floyd Hill and US 40. It hired J.F. Sato and Associates, an engineering company in Littleton, to perform the required environmental analysis.

Once again, people in the mountain counties started raising hell, demanding that the earlier commitments be honored. CDOT acquiesced.

"The corridor communities, particularly Clear Creek County, made strong suggestions that [the PEIS] needed to occur," says CDOT Region I director Jeff Kullman. "It took a little nudging, but CDOT eventually said yes. They had J.F. Sato under contract already, so they expanded the scope to the full study."

Though J.F. Sato maintains that CDOT has never tried to influence the firm's findings, Dale and many others have argued that the decision to hire a small company and not put the project out for bid was unseemly.

"This was a company that had never done anything of this size," says Miller Hudson, who was then executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority. "I said publicly at the time that if you needed any evidence, this was proof that CDOT was on a forced march to a predetermined conclusion, and that would be that you needed to widen the highway.

"I don't think anybody thought at the time that eight years later, we still wouldn't have a report."

Harry Dale was on the Clear Creek County Commission when the draft PEIS study came out in December 2004. He was suddenly thrust into the I-70 debate, and having been a Colorado resident for seven years and a public official for just two, he had a lot of catching up to do. "Before I was a commissioner, I was like everybody else: 'Let's widen the highway,'" he says. "I think the first thing that hit me over the head was the bias that was in the document, and then what would happen during the construction."

He quickly scoured the report -- which will be nine years and almost $24 million in the making when it's finally completed later this year -- and found that it compared twenty different transportation alternatives for the I-70 corridor based on factors such as environmental impacts, respect for community values, safety, technological feasibility and affordability. However, the "preferred alternatives" were chosen based solely on price projections: Only those options with a capital cost of less than $4 billion were considered feasible.

As a result, a six-lane highway, which was estimated at $2.65 billion, was preferred over an advanced guideway system, such as a monorail, which was priced at $6.15 billion.

There was just one other hurdle for "preferred alternatives" to jump: The option had to meet travel-demand projections for 2025. The PEIS had a 25-year outlook, even though CDOT does not expect the preferred six-lane highway alternative to be complete before 2025 -- after fifteen years of construction. Projections indicate that this six-lane highway would then be at capacity -- or just as congested as it is today -- by 2030.

The public outcry in response to the PEIS draft was immense and immediate. The Colorado Environmental Coalition, Trout Unlimited and the Sierra Club formed a group called Mountains to Plains Transportation Solutions, which grew to a coalition of 26 non-profit organizations opposing the PEIS findings.

"A true, legitimate policy analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act has got to consider the value of environmental costs," says Trout Unlimited's Gary Frey, who had worked on numerous PEIS documents as a NEPA expert. "Fundamentally, our group believes the decision in this document was made a long time ago: Anything selected will be a roadway-based alternative."

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Jessica Centers