U.S. Colorado Aims to Expand a Main Artery, but Beleaguered Neighbors Balk

Julie Turkewitz | New York Times
February 19, 2017
 

Holliday Aguilar at her home in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in Denver. The home is slated for demolition as part of a project to widen Interstate 70, which passes by Ms. Aguilar’s doorstep.

Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times

 

DENVER — Each morning Yadira Sanchez and her three children awaken to the roar of traffic and the plumes of exhaust that spill from the highway that cuts through their neighborhood.

Now, Ms. Sanchez and her family are confronting a plan to triple the width of this state’s main east-west artery, sending tens of thousands more cars by their door.

Denver was the fastest-growing large city in America in 2015, with a population of nearly 700,000, and the scene of a tech and marijuana boom that has drawn 1,000 new households a month. But as in other cities, its highways have not kept up with development. Many roads are crumbling, leaving officials with decisions that will have lasting effects on the families living nearby, including residents of Elyria-Swansea, a low-income and overwhelmingly Latino community still reeling from the road’s construction back in 1964.

Colorado is one of many states continuing to grapple with the legacy of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, which laid the map for thousands of miles of interstates. It also sent many highways rolling through black, immigrant and low-income urban communities, saddling people from the Bronx to Los Angeles with pollution, disease and blight.

With growing support for infrastructure overhauls across America — President Trump has vowed to “streamline and expedite” road and bridge projects — the expansion here could serve as a harbinger for communities facing similar choices in the months ahead.

The $1.17 billion plan for Colorado’s Interstate 70, which links the airport, downtown and ski resorts to the west, calls for the demolition of 56 homes and 17 businesses. In their place, engineers will lay tolled express lanes available to those who can pay for a faster commute.

The plan involves knocking down a viaduct and dropping the highway into a ditch as much as 40 feet deep. When the project is done, 270,000 vehicles could pass through the neighborhood each day.

The state has made a long list of promises that officials say will make life by the interstate better than it is today. Forty-two months of rental assistance for those who are displaced. A four-acre park that will cover a tenth of the lowered highway, connecting divided sides of the neighborhood. And $2 million in affordable housing in the area.

“We are trying to fix the sins of our fathers and mothers,” said Shailen P. Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Transportation Department. “But I can’t fix — I can’t go back to 1950 and not put a highway through here. What I can do is, I can mitigate to the extent possible. I can reconnect the neighborhood. I can fix the school. And I can do the right thing by the people who we are relocating.”

Many people say that is not enough, and the project is among the most controversial in a city buzzing with construction.

Already, children living by the highway have asthma hospitalization rates 40 percent higher than Denver as a whole, and residents die of heart disease at a rate 13 percent greater than the rest of the city, according to city data.

 

Since Yadira Sanchez moved to Elyria-Swansea over a decade ago, she and her three children have had diagnoses of asthma, which she believes was caused by pollution from I-70 as well as industry in the neighborhood. 

Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times

 

In Elyria-Swansea, where the Sanchez family lives, the effects of the interstate are compounded by the factories and railroads that dot and crisscross the area. More cars, residents fear, will mean more health problems. One recent assessment, by the property database Attom Data Solutions, called the neighborhood the most polluted in the nation.

“Their childhoods were robbed of them because of asthma,” said Ms. Sanchez, 40, who suffers from a severe version of the disease, along with Leonardo, 8, Olivia, 11, and Ruben, 16. She said her health meant that she struggled to work more than a few hours a week at a family restaurant. This makes a move to a nicer neighborhood feel impossible.

The United States Department of Transportation approved the state’s plan on President Barack Obama’s last day in office. Engineers expect to begin construction in 2018, and the state has begun buying up and knocking down homes that sit in the way.

But a group that includes residents and city activists has vowed to fight the expansion, saying it unnecessarily displaces people and further divides the community. The group uses the slogan “Ditch the ditch,” a reference to the canyon into which the highway will be dropped.

 

The effects of I-70 on the neighborhoods it passes through are compounded by factories and railroads in the area. 

Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times

 

“We shouldn’t be the people carrying the city on our backs,” Candi CdeBaca, 30, said at a community meeting that erupted in cheers of support for an alternate plan.

That plan would divert traffic onto highways that skirt the city and turn the interstate route into a leafy boulevard with sidewalks. It is the latest sign of a growing national interest in eliminating 20th-century highways that cut through urban cores, and supporters say it is the state’s chance to remake Elyria-Swansea.

But Mr. Bhatt said it was not that easy.

“Anytime I move the traffic, somebody is going to say: ‘You’re ruining this. We don’t want that traffic,’” he said.

When engineers completed I-70’s north Denver segment in 1964, they laid a ribbon of concrete through the heart of the community, razing a portion of its main street and demolishing at least 30 houses.

 

“We shouldn’t be the people carrying the city on our backs,” said Candi CdeBaca, a resident opposing the expansion of I-70. 

Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times

“A lot of people were so sad about losing their homes,” said Bettie Cram, 94, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1952.

Today, the neighborhood is among the poorest in the city. Sidewalks are broken, residents have no full-service grocery store, and motorists toss trash and even diapers onto the neighborhood from the highway.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Transportation Department, Rebecca White, said pollution in the area would generally remain the same after the expansion, despite more cars on the road, because new vehicles emit lower levels of pollutants, the road would be less congested and the park would block some of the vehicle exhaust.

But a federal lawsuit associated with the expansion, filed against the Environmental Protection Agency by the Sierra Club, claims the agency illegally weakened its air standards recently, allowing Colorado to determine that the highway project would not violate air quality rules.

Kyle Shelton, who studies the social impact of transportation projects, said the expansion looked far better than the highways of the 1960s, which made few concessions to neighbors.

“It’s a positive development,” said Mr. Shelton, of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. “Whether or not it goes far enough to fulfill the desires of the community is another question.”

See the original article from the New York Times here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Turkewitz | New York Times

Julie is a reporter for The New York Times, covering the Rocky Mountain region.

 

Creative Commons LicenseThis DitchtheDitch Perspectives article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Photos, images, and logos are excepted from this license, except where noted. Please contact our team for re-publication queries.

 

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