Biggest turnout yet for CDOT open house on Hwy 24 alternatives
Local political leaders critical of project size

       Interest continues unabated in the state's plans for expanding Westside Highway 24, as shown by the 244 citizens who signed in for the Colorado Department of Transporta-tion (CDOT) open house Thursday, Jan. 26 at the West Intergenerational Center. Projected traffic counts
       Viewing more than 20 graphic options for the intersections along the 6 ˝-mile segment, the number of attendees bettered the previous record of 229, set last Nov. 10 at the sixth in a series of CDOT open houses on Highway 24 that started in November 2004.
       Although the public's feedback was not available at press deadline - CDOT provided comment forms at the meeting - it was clear from conversations during the evening that, while many people believe improvements are needed on the 40-year-old thoroughfare, a great number still have questions about the size and scope of CDOT's proposals. Results from the Nov. 10 meeting's public comments had indicated a slight majority in opposition to the plans.
       The next open house is anticipated in March or April, according to Dave Watt, project leader for CDOT.
       No local public official has come out in favor of the alternatives as currently presented. These include Westsiders/ elected officials Sallie Clark (El Paso County commissioner) and Tom Gallagher (City Council member), plus Jerry Heimlicher (a Cheyenne-area City Council member whose district includes the targeted highway segment). All three are calling for a smaller project. Road widths
       “They (the state) should be concentrating on the Cimarron interchange and Eighth Street, with modest improvements along the corridor,” Clark said. “I think they're biting off more than they can chew. It's not that I don't believe in long-range planning, but this is overdoing it.”
       “It's too big to be compatible,” Gallagher said. “It cuts the Westside in half, and some scenarios involve isolating the Midland area.”
       Heimlicher pointed out there is “no money” for a project for which pricetags of at least $200 million have been suggested. “It's way overblown,” said Heimlicher, who (with Clark) is a member of the Executive Leadership Committee that is advising CDOT on the project. “It could be handled in a less intrusive way.”
       Manitou Springs was represented by Donna Ford, a City Council member, who has spoken out strongly against the size of the project. She was among many who have raised the issue of why the highway needs to expand to six or eight lanes for such a relatively short distance when it backs down to four going up Ute Pass or into downtown Colorado Springs. A scenario shows the 31st Street and 26th Street
intersections in the expressway alternative (six lanes, at grade, with stoplights).
courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation
       Also going on record in opposition has been State Rep. Michael Merrifield, who has pledged to represent neighborhood objections to the executive director of CDOT.
       To such criticism, state engineers have responded that their traffic projections indicate an expansion need, based on current figures as well as a predicted 2 percent average increase over the next 25 years. Much of the traffic comes from I-25, with a major infusion seen from the 214-acre Gold Hill Mesa residential-commercial development that is just starting to show foundations for the first of 1,000 or more houses southeast of Highway 24 and 21st Street.
       As to the I-25-to-Manitou scope, Mary Jo Vobejda, the lead consulting engineer with CH2M HILL, said in a separate meeting this week with Old Colorado City merchants, “Every project has to begin and end. And those are reasonable places.”
       The intent of both the Nov. 10 and Jan. 26 meetings, as advertised, was to get an idea from people if they prefer the wider, slower (45 mph) expressway version or the slightly less wide, faster (55 mph) alternative; also, which intersection options they might like. The graphic showing Highway 24 going south of Van Briggle
Pottery and through part of the  Midland neighborhood.
courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation
       No final decision will be made as a result of the Jan. 26 open house, according to Dave Watt, project manager for CDOT, but the situation could start to crystalize after the March or April meeting. Meetings to date have been scheduled two to three months apart, and he said the project team's goal is to decide between the expressway or freeway scenario by this summer.
       Watt added that the no-action alternative technically remains a possibility. However, CDOT did not have a presentation for it at the open house and also left it off its comment forms. (See story).
       One of the big differences in the plans since November is the decision by state engineers not to propose an at-grade intersection for 21st or 8th streets. So the options at both intersections Jan. 26 called for a combined expressway-freeway. However, engineers sought public opinion on the various types of overpass interchanges at these intersections, along with options to relieve traffic from Gold Hill Mesa via overpasses at 10th, 13th, 14th, 15th or 18th streets.
       Bob Willard, head of the investment group that is developing Gold Hill, said he preferred the 18th Street scenario because it would allow people to readily access his project's busy-to-be commercial area. However, he expressed concern about impacts on the older neighborhood north of the highway, based on the CDOT graphic indicating a noticeably widened 18th Street between the highway and Colorado Avenue. Manitou Springs' cloverleaf interchange is shown with the
current westbound on- and off-ramps to Manitou Avenue
eliminated, to be replaced by ramps east of the interchange
(the light blue), in part to allow access for westbound traffic
before Highway 24 starts uphill into Ute Pass.
courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation
       At 21st Street, state engineers say they faced difficult choices because the historic Midland Railroad roundhouse (which has housed Van Briggle Pottery for the past 50 years) cannot be relocated. To accommodate the considerably expanded space needed for an overpass-interchange, different CDOT plans showed the envisioned overpass-interchange moving north or south of Van Briggle. Going north would take out the newly built Angler's Covey, the Prospector statue/park and the businesses along Naegele Road. Going south would force the removal of numerous businesses and homes off Bott Avenue.
       Dave Leinweber, owner of Angler's Covey, is not happy about 21st Street's northern option. “I had heard whispers that it (a highway expansion) was coming,” he said. “But I never thought it would be this big.”
       West of 21st Street, the intersections of 26th, 31st and Ridge Road could be either overpasses (in a freeway scenario) or at- grade (expressway). The freeway would have four lanes west of 21st, while the expressway would have six lanes until the Manitou exit, according to plans.
       One proposal calls for the 31st Street intersection to be moved to 30th Street, directing the bulk of the present north-south traffic up 30th. This would wipe out the RV park north of the highway and have an unknown effect on the existing 30th Street north of Colorado Avenue, a relatively narrow two lanes going through an older established neighborhood and near Whittier School.
       A CDOT meeting Jan. 31 with about 30 members of the Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) merchants group showed strong merchant support for an at-grade interchange at 26th Street, because this is the only alternative that would retain the current free access to the historic shopping district from the highway. Without such access, merchants indicated, would-be shoppers would likely speed by Old Colorado City and - for those going westbound - possibly funnel into Manitou Springs, which is to have an upgraded cloverleaf off-ramp as part of the project.
       But this meeting also included skeptics, who questioned the general need for the project as well as the specific impact on residents and businesses along 26th Street. This impact would stem from the expressway version's expanded intersection footprint, including a roughly doubled highway width and medians along 26th Street for about two blocks to the north and south.
       In any scenario, construction does not appear likely very soon. No money has been appropriated for it, and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) has previously projected that under normal circumstances the earliest that money could become available is 10 years.

Westside Pioneer article