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In a photo shot from Cucharras Street, cars on southbound 21st Street back up from the intersection of 21st Street and Highway 24 during a recent evening rush hour.
Westside Pioneer photo

21st & 24: Backups with no current solutions... or funding

       Someday the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) plans to build an interchange for Highway 24 at 21st Street. Passing above 21st, the highway will have two lanes either way, with two-lane on-ramps and off-ramps.
       However, no funds exist to build this project, let alone design it to find out what it might cost.
       In the meantime, rush-hour traffic backs up more and more frequently, and according to Gold Hill Mesa lead developer Bob Willard, the growing development expects to break ground within a year on a 60-acre commercial area southeast of 21st & 24 that will attract even more cars to the intersection.
       Future interchange aside, City Transportation Manager Kathleen Krager would consider less costly fixes in the present. But for now any work at 21st & 24 must wait for projects previously deemed as higher priorities.
       “Yes, I am aware of these problems and have been talking to CDOT about possible solutions,” she said in a recent e-mail. “Unfortunately CDOT is hitting me pretty hard with other funding needs so I am not sure what funding I can find to do anything.”
       One of the problems at 21st & 24 results from the highway bridging Fountain Creek less than 300 feet east of the intersection. Built in the 1960s, the bridge was designed with an open-air separation of a few feet between the two sides of traffic. For the highway's westbound traffic, this limits the length of the left-turn lane. Based on observations, no more than 10 cars can fit in the lane between the intersection and the separation - fewer if trucks or SUVS are among them.

During rush-hour times at Highway 24 and 21st Street, the left-turn lane for the highway's westbound vehicles often backs up into the left-hand through lane (as can be seen with the last car in this photo that's trying to turn left). The lane length is limited by the separation in the highway bridge over Fountain Creek (background, next to the last car).
Westside Pioneer photo

       “In busy times, cars have to go into the other lanes, and that's pretty dangerous,” Willard commented.
       Another common backup is for southbound 21st Street traffic approaching the intersection. One cause of this problem is the unusually wide sidewalk/parkway at the northwest corner. No one complains about its appearance - the layout is part of a park featuring Old Colorado City's Prospector statue on a grassy knoll. But the result is that as few as two southbound cars in the right-hand lane waiting at the light can block cars behind them from turning right (west). And at evening rush hour, with most cars heading west, that can mean a lot of cars in a short amount of time.
       Adding to the southbound mix is Naegele Road, a frontage road that comes into 21st without a stoplight a few hundred feet north of 21st & 24. That proximity not only causes snarls from drivers going in and out of Naegele, but limits the length of 21st Street's left-turn lane onto eastbound 24. A third southbound factor is the 21st Street bridge over Fountain Creek (north of Highway 24), which is too narrow to allow four lanes of traffic.
       The cumulative effect is a traffic jam for southbound 21st Street cars - most often at evening rush hour - that can back up cars almost all the way to Colorado Avenue.
       A $225,000 Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) project three years ago made some safety and traffic-flow improvements at 21st & 24. The project came about after the 2006 city “dangerous intersections” list showed it as the second worst in the city. But no follow-up plans exist for any of the problems noted in the paragraphs above. In fact, when the RTA work was done, the city's project manager said that more drastic upgrades had been held back to avoid having to undo too much work when the interchange goes in.

A closer shot shows the separation in the bridge that limits the length of the left-turn lane for westbound motorists trying to turn left onto southbound 21st Street.
Courtesy of CDOT

       So how soon might that happen?
       It may be quite a while. The interchange is part of a long-range CDOT plan called Envision 24 West, which studied Highway 24 from Eighth Street to Manitou between 2004 and 2012 and resulted in an environmental assessment (EA) aimed at improving highway traffic flow.
       But the only Envision EA references in the regional Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP - which lists projects eligible for current funding if enough money comes in) are general descriptions of “environmental studies” and “safety improvements” at unspecified portions of Eighth-to-Manitou.
       The EA does give a clue as to which portions might get the earliest attention, stating that “the Eighth Street and US 24/I-25 interchanges are the highest priority on the US 24 corridor because this complex serves both local and regional motorists, and currently experiences the most congestion.”
       But CDOT funding is invariably tight. The interchange at Cimarron (Highway 24) and I-25 did not get full funding until last fall - and that was after being one of the top regional priorities for more than a decade. Krager even had to pledge an annual $1 million a year from the city's transportation budget for five years to help cover the cost - saying afterward that the result will be less money over that span for other projects around town.
       The Eighth & 24 interchange would appear to be next on the Highway 24 list. CDOT renderings show it as part of an “ultimate” Cimarron/I-25 interchange that would allow enhanced northbound and southbound freeway onramps. Support for Eighth & 24 has also come from the elected officials that make up the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) board of directors, which voted it last year as one of the top regional priorities.
       Sallie Clark, a Westside resident and commissioner for the El Paso County district that includes this area, is a long-time PPACG board member. She too can't pinpoint a money source for 21st & 24 at this time. “I think we'll need to see what happens with the Cimarron interchange as there is no funding in the TIP for 21st,” she said. “I will have a conversation with Kathleen Krager and [County Engineer] Andre Brackin to see if they have any ideas. An interchange/flyover would not be my choice for a solution, but the points [about] the bridge design being too narrow for alternatives make sense.”
       One ray of hope for 21st & 24 was presented by CDOT engineer Doug Lollar. In a recent e-mail, he suggested there could be another safety project at 21st and the highway at some point. Money could come from the federal Hazard Elimination and Intersection Safety program. But even then, “one of the (funding) challenges will be the associated bridge widening that is likely required,” Lollar said. “I am not sure what the cost to 'close up' the gap between [the bridge] structures might be.”
       Gold Hill Mesa's Bob Willard has offered a different kind of idea for providing traffic relief at 21st & 24. The Envision plan allows an access or even an overpass at 14th. This could be used to divert some of the traffic to and from Gold Hill Mesa, which covers 200 acres in all and is zoned to allow up to 1,000 homes. The state would not fund the work, but Willard is willing to pay the cost, and has let officials know that. He is is still waiting for a final government go-ahead.
       There is no question that Gold Hill is part of the reason for increased traffic at 21st & 24. As recently as five years ago, almost no one was living there. Now, Willard said, it has 205 occupied households. (Note: Gold Hill Mesa will be required to help the city widen 21st Street alongside the project to four lanes.)
       Gold Hill's commercial area will be accessible from 21st Street, with Broadway Street its first access south of Highway 24. The development partnership owns a vacant three-acre parcel at Broadway and 21st, which it is actively marketing. Sale of the parcel will go a long way toward funding development of the 60-acre commercial area, Willard has said. He can't reveal the names of the businesses Gold Hill is negotiating with, but predicted that “between now and the end of next year, we definitely will have something going on there.”

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