Rail Roaded

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Again the group came to absolute agreement: Build a transit system in tandem with highway improvements. The "preferred alternatives" they submitted to CDOT now have the endorsement of every jurisdiction from Golden and Jefferson County through Garfield County and Glenwood Springs, up into Pitkin County and Aspen, all the way to Steamboat Springs and Park County. Vail Resorts and Intrawest signed on, too.

Since the retreat, the group has begun to see some movement at CDOT. The agency has recently begun talking about a multi-modal vision for the I-70 mountain corridor and updated the planning outlook for the PEIS from 25 to 50 years, a change Clear Creek County had been asking for since the study began. As a result, the "preferred alternative" now under internal review is still a six-lane highway widening, but that highway would come with preservation for transit.

"We were starting to move a direction, and we were able to see the light," says Kullman. "It took a lot of persuasion for some people. It seemed to be one of the strongest opinions of the people: 'Come on, CDOT. Look a little longer than twenty years. Have a little vision.' We heard that time and time again, as well as the multi-modal, and I believe we've addressed both those things.

"We would start the highway improvements first, but as we do those improvements we will preserve the ability, the functionality, to allow transit to be added," he continues. "Under the current fiscal constraints, it's probably going to take us most of the next twenty years to complete highway improvements, so under our plan, transit would probably come financially after that point. But if something changes and the legislature or the people of the state determine that transit is a more desired alternative, then we could just stop where we're at with the highway and move to the transit."

The irony that this change comes as Bill Ritter takes over the governor's office isn't lost on many. Ritter's newly appointed CDOT director, Russell George, is interested in an advanced-guideway system for the corridor but is pragmatic about the cost and the time frame. He says highway-widening needs to come first. "It's a near-term solution for the problem," George explains. "We need to move automobile traffic, and that means more lanes.

"What's not an alternative is not making a decision," he adds. "We need to make a decision and move on."

Toward that end, CDOT has hired a contractor to lead the Context Sensitive Design portion of the highway expansion and invited a representative of Clear Creek County's choosing to join in that process. It puts Cynthia Neely in a difficult position, because she's adamant that the CSS process should have been used to select an alternative for I-70, not just to design that alternative after CDOT had already made its decision.

"So while we are participating, and pleased to participate, if the decision is one that pays no regard for the environment or community values, the fact that you're going to be nice about implementing it is not going to change the determination to not let a bad decision stand," she says.

Clear Creek County is prepared to sue the state if CDOT selects six-lane highway widening as its alternative in the final PEIS, regardless of whether that highway would preserve space for transit. "I think there will be severe problems with the PEIS, and hopefully the new administration will dig into it," Dale says. "It's so ripe for litigation right now, if they don't, it will be held up forever in court."

For now, the last word on the PEIS belongs to Governor Ritter, who says he's yet to make up his mind about CDOT's preferred alternative. "The people that I most trust in, I haven't sat down and had a long conversation with them about that document or about that alternative," he says. "What I kept hearing is that Governor Owens's administration had put a certain amount of money on the table to be spent over a certain period of time -- all of which would involve highway widening. There are a lot of really good transportation experts in this state who I'm not sure have been heard in the discussion to date. I do think transit should be on the table."

Bob Briggs takes the podium before Boulder County's three commissioners to give his familiar pitch -- the same call for support he'll give to a total of 122 counties, 54 cities and 400 organizations before he's through.

After the 2004 election -- when Briggs, a Republican, lost his run for the legislature -- he got a call from RTD general manager Cal Marsella. He recalled how Briggs, while on the RTD board from 1998 to 2002, had often said the state should have a passenger rail system along the Front Range, from Wyoming to New Mexico. With FasTracks having just been approved, Marsella thought the time might be right to pursue that project. As Briggs began to travel and promote his passenger rail idea, he quickly found that the people he talked to were just as, if not more, interested in I-70. Thus, it only made sense to add that corridor to his state rail plan.

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Jessica Centers