Activists call on CDOT to remove I-25 widening from 10-year plan

Any chance of a major widening project for Interstate 25 through central Denver is still several years away, but neighborhood and environmental advocates called Tuesday for state transportation leaders to bury the idea for good.

They are pushing the Colorado Department of Transportation to remove mention of a larger I-25 project from its 10-year priority plan, which dates to 2019 and now is in the midst of a major update.

For years, CDOT has eyed the state’s busiest stretch of highway — from Alameda Avenue to 20th Street — for an overhaul, one that could cost as much as $1.5 billion for a full project that adds express toll lanes. Despite lawmakers’ approval of a $5.4 billion transportation bill last year, that level of funding isn’t assured; the current 10-year plan pencils in just $260 million for coming years.

“Doubling down on highway projects will only make life worse for residents of the Denver metro region, including communities like Sun Valley,” said Molly McKinley, the Denver Streets Partnership’s policy director.

As she and others from groups including the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, GreenLatinos and the Sun Valley Community Coalition spoke at Weir Gulch Park, I-25 traffic roared about two blocks away, across the South Platte River. They called for CDOT to divert money to improvements that would enable speedier bus service on nearby Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard, both federal highways.

“Sun Valley really is a valley. All of the pollution just gets trapped here — in our lungs, our homes, even our food,” said Jenny Esquibel, 56, who lives in one of the neighborhood’s public housing communities. Citing data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for 2013-2017, she added: “We already have asthma at a 253% higher rate than the state average.”

The five-mile corridor remains below federal highway standards, so CDOT argues it’s at least in need of major safety improvements, including full shoulders, wider lanes and redesigned on- and off-ramps.

“We very much appreciate the concerns that stakeholders are raising,” said Shoshana Lew, CDOT’s executive director, in a statement to The Denver Post. She said projects so close to neighborhoods “must be evaluated with a careful eye towards greenhouse gas emissions and environmental justice, as amplified by” last year’s transportation bill.

A preliminary study finished two years ago included the $1.5 billion estimate for major widening, and it also pegged a high cost for simply bringing the corridor up to federal standards — at least $800 million.

For now, CDOT’s attention is on a big puzzle piece that needs to be addressed first.

It’s planning for the relocation of freight rail tracks away from I-25 near Alameda, where the highway is sandwiched between the tracks and the river. Last year, the state purchased the nearby Burnham Yard, a defunct 60-acre Union Pacific railyard, as a way to pull that off.

CDOT is beginning a multi-year process with the city to figure out how to accommodate more rail tracks on that land for the freight line, light rail lines and the potential Front Range Passenger Railway, as well as substantial private development.

CDOT officials won’t say to what extent the revamped 10-year plan will include I-25 improvements.

Within the I-25 corridor, the current 10-year plan includes prep work for a separate project that would replace deficient bridges at Speer Boulevard and West 23rd Avenue, along with interchange reconstructions. That focused work could get a green light much sooner.

CDOT’s timeline calls for the commission to consider the updated 10-year plan in August. Its project horizon will be extended out a full decade, through the early 2030s, a CDOT spokesman said.

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