The highway lowdown: Denver’s I-70 expansion controversy, explained
Coloradans remain indignant over a plan to expand Interstate 70 in two northeast Denver neighborhoods, citing concerns like increased air pollution, unsolved traffic problems and ever-worsening gentrification. The controversial project has even prompted two separate lawsuits.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) says the expansion will rejoin communities, strengthen Denver’s economic backbone and bring the highway into the 21st century.
But groups in opposition to the project, of which there are several, refute these claims. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration, Denver’s City Council, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have all come under fire from such groups.
What are their worries? And why are they suing? Let The Colorado Independent walk you through the various intersecting issues involved in this contentious debate.
So what’s the plan, exactly?
CDOT is planning to alter the 10-mile section of I-70 that runs between I-25 and Chambers Road. The project runs through, and thus will most directly affect, the Elyria/Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods.
Why change the highway? The project was prompted by a need to finally fix an existing viaduct that has long been in disrepair. CDOT’s plan is multi-step. First, they will “cut and cover” part of the existing highway: That means removing the viaduct and completely rebuilding the section between Brighton Boulevard and Colorado Road — this time, below ground level — and installing a four-acre landscaped park on top of part the lowered section. The section of highway from Colorado Road to I-270 will also be rebuilt, but at its existing, above-ground level.
CDOT also plans to add an express lane in each direction in two sections: I-270 to Chambers Road and I-25 to Brighton. They will accomplish this by widening and restriping those sections, respectively.
CDOT estimates that the whole project will cost $1.17 billion. Construction is expected to begin after summer 2017.
Some residents of the Elyria/Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods say expansion will mean a substantial shift in what those areas look like and how much traffic flows through them.
CDOT says that its primary goals are to “make the interstate safer, relieve congestion, and address aging infrastructure.” But detractors fear that it will cause more problems than it solves.
Why do people oppose it?
Several groups have spoken out against the project, but their specific reasons for opposition vary. Let’s break them down.
1. They’re worried about air pollution
The Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club, along with three neighborhood community groups, is suing the EPA over claims that the agency approved new, more relaxed air quality guidance for CDOT in November. The environmental group says the public was given no notice about this change in air quality standards.
According to the Sierra Club’s press release on this topic, “Under EPA’s earlier Clean Air Act requirements, the project could not qualify for federal funds because it would cause particulate pollution to violate the air standards on high pollution days.” In other words, they claim, the EPA changed its standards rather than reject the highway expansion project.
According to environmentalists, unchecked highway air pollution has grave implications for environmental justice. The Sierra Club cites a 2014 Denver Environmental Health Department report which says that residents in the north Denver neighborhoods adjacent to I-70 experience a 70 percent higher mortality rate from heart disease than those neighborhoods in Denver not affected by highway pollution. The report also found that children in areas near I-70 have a 40 percent greater frequency of severe asthma-related urgent care visits compared to other parts of Denver.
Both environmentalists and local residents say if that if I-70 is expanded, these health challenges will only worsen.
Drew Dutcher, president of community group Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, which joined the Sierra Club in its lawsuit, explained why they sued. “The residents of the Elyria and Swansea know many neighbors who, because of the pollution, have suffered debilitating diseases, died of pollution-related causes, or moved away,” he said. “We need to protect ourselves.”
2. They think it’s unfair to have to pay for stormwater drainage
This is where things get a little trickier.
Because the I-70 expansion project means part of the highway will be rebuilt underground, it requires a considerable reworking of the stormwater drainage system — massive rainstorms could otherwise lead to troublesome flooding. That’s where an initiative called the Platte to Park Hill Project comes in. In order to prevent flooding, it will install a series of pipes and detention ponds to divert excess water. And, thanks to an intergovernmental agreement between the city and CDOT, taxpayers will foot the bill for the drainage project, despite the fact that they might not even benefit from it.
On June 13, Denver’s City Council voted to hike stormwater fees in order to pay for the project. The measure passed 8 to 3, with two council members absent. Council members Rafael Espinoza, Kevin Flynn and Paul Kashmann voted against the fee increase.
Espinoza said that he was alarmed at the demand that nearby residents pay for a project that most benefited the city and region as a whole.
“It’s not about protecting the households, because a significant portion of them are not in the inundation area,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza also pointed out that the stormwater project doesn’t address a breach in the Platte River, and that the area that would be protected from flooding is ripe for development. That, he says, suggests that the expansion is really about attracting developers rather than supporting the local community.
“If you look at the mapping, there’s a lot of surface parking, it’s an industrial area,” Espinoza said. “I’m certain there are development interests.”
This is significant because developers are required to handle stormwater mitigation on their own. By offering to do it — and pay for it — for them, the city has essentially asked taxpayers who may not even benefit from the project to subsidize developers.
“It’s a very strategic pulling the wool over the community’s eyes,” Espinoza said.
CDOT argues that its responsibility is exclusively to the expansion, not to neighborhood stormwater drainage. “It’s not our job to solve Denver’s stormwater flooding problem,” said agency spokeswoman Rebecca White.
3. They think the expansion is really about Mayor Hancock’s pet project: the National Western Complex
The city has big plans for the National Western Complex, which is located along the stretch of highway that is set to be expanded. There’s a 10-year plan in place to redevelop the complex, and in January Mayor Hancock established a new office for that project as well as five other projects in the area. It is called the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative.
According to the Mayor’s office’s Web site, the office will “focus on realizing the bold vision of a must-see tourist destination and regional asset, transforming the Denver Coliseum and National Western Complex area to become a creative year-round activity campus.”
The Stock Show is located squarely within the stormwater drainage project, meaning that it will indirectly benefit from the success of the I-70 expansion by not having to pay for its own storm mitigation.
In addition, the redevelopment is being funded partly by tax money from tourism, which may increase in the future. The mayor says that future phases of the project will be supported by private funding, not tax increases.
Some residents of the surrounding neighborhoods are concerned about this plan and its potential effects on housing prices. Further, analysts say that the redevelopment is not designed to benefit the local community.
“The way you create economic development is not adding lanes to a highway – you need those areas to be walkable, bikeable and transit-rich,” said David Sachs of Streetsblog Denver. “If CDOT was really concerned with moving people through the corridor, there would be a transit element to the expansion.”
Councilman Espinoza is also dubious that the National Western redevelopment will benefit local neighborhoods. He finds a certain painful irony in the project’s goals, particularly considering the nature of the location.
“[The National Western Center of the Mayor’s Office] was created so the Monsantos of the world will want to come here. We keep talking about this becoming the food mecca of the world in one of Denver’s largest food deserts,” Espinoza said.
4. They don’t like that it will alter a well-loved, affordable golf course
Part of the Platte to Park Hill Project plan is to use the City Park Golf Course as a detention area for stormwater. This means that the golf course will be closed for several months, and that between 150 and 280 trees will be uprooted.
A lawsuit currently being brought by former Colorado Attorney General J.D. McFarlane, with the help of attorney Aaron Goldhamer, challenges CDOT’s legal right to use the golf course for this project.
“This project as currently conceived provides 100 year flood protection for very specific areas, those being I-70, which requires 100 year flood protection, but that’s a state and federal project,” Goldhamer told The Independent. “Our contention is the use of park land in Denver for a project to benefit other construction projects is contrary to the Denver city charter. There are very specific ways you can use park land. It should only be used for park purposes.”
Goldhamer’s language echoes Councilman Espinoza’s concern about the appropriate parties paying for the costs associated with the expansion. “This is the Mayor’s legacy, this ‘Corridor of Opportunity,’ and it should pay its own way.”
It seems to some critics that the city is requiring neighborhood residents to accept the road expansion in exchange for protection from big storms.
“There have been some concerns that people’s questions aren’t getting answered when they pose them to their elected officials who are supposed to be working for them,” Goldhamer said.
5. They don’t think it will decrease traffic
Some critics have also taken issue with the data CDOT used to justify the expansion on the basis of relieving traffic congestion. According to Streetblog Denver’s Sachs, the modeling CDOT used relied on travel behaviors from the late 1990s. “Travel behaviors are not the same as they were last century,” Sachs said.
Further, a report from the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) shows that efforts to relieve congestion by widening highways are almost never successful. The report analyzed widening projects and their effects on a series of criteria — safety, environmental health, and efficiency.
“The data suggest that widening highways really isn’t a solution,” CoPIRG’s Danny Katz told me.
One of the projects CoPIRG cited was the Katy freeway in Houston. It cost $2.8 billion to widen it, and within two years 85 percent of commutes took longer than they had before the project took place.
Katz said that the reason why broadening highways doesn’t successfully reduce traffic is beyond his purview, but that the data are unequivocal. “That’s more of a sociological question, but it’s clear that widening roads does not work,” Katz said.
6. Community input has been…negative
The I-70 expansion has been in the planning stages for a long time — about 13 years. Over the course of those years, there have been several opportunities for the public to get involved. And according to attorney Goldhamer, that involvement has been emphatically negative.
“They have been absolutely dominated by people who were upset about the project,” he says of public comment sessions. “There has been an incredible show of skepticism, anger and dislike of the project.”
A community group called Ditch the Ditch has formed, complete with a Facebook page, that has weighed in with opposition through protests, public comments and media interviews. Tom Morris, a Ditch the Ditch member, voiced a bleak perspective on the Hancock administration’s approach to this issue.
“I’ve been engaging with the city for 30 years, and the Hancock administration has been the most opaque by far,” Morris said. “I had a lot of success with [former Denver Mayor] Pena, but Hancock, not so much.”
The Hancock administration did not respond to requests for comment from The Independent in time for this story’s deadline.
For its part, CDOT asserts that it has taken public concerns into account every step of the way.
“We’re continuing outreach to Globeville, Elyria and Swansea, and that’s where we will continue to put our focus,” said CDOT spokeswoman White. “We have [held public hearings] and gone door to door multiple times. It’s a big project, we’re never going to say 100% of people love what we’re doing, but we’re looking to strike that balance.”
7. They think it’s an antiquated design
Across the nation, there’s a growing consensus among city planners and other officials that cities built on the traditional model of a central highway, like Los Angeles and Dallas, should be a thing of the past. Proponents of this perspective say that 21st century cities should instead be built around boulevards, like San Francisco.
Councilman Espinoza, an architect, enthusiastically embraces this planning approach.
“For me, it’s not a matter of opinion — there’s hard science behind this,” he said. “Other communities have gotten wise to the fact that you get overall better communities by removing [large central highways], not expanding them. Rather than improving the quality of life in the core, we go to the status quo of displacing people and expanding urban sprawl.”
CDOT spokeswoman White responded to these concerns by stating that I-70 is the exception the rule. .
“I’m aware of other cities that have removed highways, I-70 is just a different highway,” White said. “It’s our backbone, and it’s also a heavily industrial corridor. Two hundred businesses that employ 25,000 people are located along the I-70 corridor, and they have grown up along this highway.”
8. They’re worried it will make gentrification even worse
One major reason the I-70 expansion has become one of the city’s most contentious issues is that the neighborhoods most affected are ground zero for the gentrification that pervades much of the city.
Both sides claim that their solution will remedy gentrification issues; proponents of the expansion say it will attract businesses, and that the cover will reconnect the neighborhoods. But opponents say the expansion will only further isolate underserved neighborhoods from the heart of the city while exacerbating health risks.
Councilman Espinoza sees an opportunity for better policy making by engaging Denver residents more directly. If residents are more informed and engaged, he says, projects like the I-70 expansion could look different.
“We’re getting policies that are sent to us, not the policies that the community is asking for,” Espinoza said. “This city could be a very different place.”
Photo credit: Colorado Department of Transportation
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