Hwy 24: Brainstorming sessions in rear-view mirror
Next planning meeting to reveal construction constraints, info from unpublicized confabs

       After two public meetings on potential upgrades for Westside Highway 24, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has heard plenty about general problems and solutions. At the next meeting - also called an “open house” - to be scheduled in March or April, the agency plans to start narrowing down what realistically can be done along the corridor between I-25 and Manitou Springs, CDOT Project Manager Dave Watt said afterward.
       In addition, he said in a phone interview with the Westside Pioneer, he also plans to start sharing ideas that have been coming out of separate, unpublicized highway meetings since last September involving CDOT, staff and some elected officials.
       These meetings have been used to mull technical issues, to “tweak” CDOT's boilerplate public planning process, to brainstorm ideas and to hammer out a vision statement for the project, according to Watt.
       The vision statement was presented at the most recent citizens' meeting Jan. 20 at the West Intergenerational Center without CDOT officials stating its source nor asking for public comment on its wording.
       Watt said he thought it might be beneficial to “try to bring these along together” in the future, so that citizens will understand how their efforts at the public meetings tie in with officials' efforts at their meetings.
       Still, it's not as if there has been wide disparity between the publicized and unpublicized meetings. “One thing I'm hearing is that people aren't happy with Highway 24 today,” Watt said. “We're trying to bring about a change that makes the most sense.”
       About 75 citizens signed in at the Jan. 20 meeting. This was a drop-off from the 115 who came to the November meeting. However, Watt said it was still a high participation number. “We're excited about the number of people coming,” he said.
       CDOT divided the Jan. 20 attendees into three arbitrary subgroups, with the goal of brainstoming ideas. “No matter how 'out there' they are, I want to capture these,” was how CDOT consultant Bill Knapp put it to the subgroup he led.
       With few exceptions - such as Gold Hill Mesa developer Bob Willard happening to be on hand to answer one subgroup's questions - the CDOT team provided no background information on potential constraints resulting from terrain, planned developments, financial realities, previously approved community plans for the area, or impacts on Westside neighborhoods, businesses and historical entities.
       This may have been why, for example, CDOT consultants at one subgroup dutifully wrote down on their input boards one man's suggestion to put in cloverleaf intersections without discussing impacts on nearby homes or businesses.
       At the same time, others proposed making the highway a Westside enhancement. Jim Fenimore, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), suggested that the highway should be upgraded to “a parkway that's appealing to the eye.” Currently, he said, “The weeds along Highway 24 are as high as the fence.”
       “The goal is not to limit ideas right off the bat,” Watt explained afterward. “We want an open, uninhibited environment so people can brainstorm… We don't want to start with a preconceived notion of what we can't do.”
       An example of a constraint that will be brought up at the next meeting is that the historic Van Briggle Pottery building - formerly the Midland roundhouse - at 21st and Highway 24 is not a candidate for relocation, Watt said. Another is that the Gold Hill Mesa commercial-residential development has an approved master plan which will impact traffic along both Highway 24 and 21st Street.
       Attendees at the next meeting can also expect to see a categorized list of solutions and ideas that came out of the January 20 meeting, he said. In the same way, to help facilitate discussion, people at the recent meeting were prompted by issues that had been brought up at the Nov. 18 meeting (as well as the unpublicized meetings).
       The format being used for the Westside Highway 24 meetings is similar to what is typically used by CDOT when planning major roadway projects, according to Watt and Bob Wilson of CDOT Public Relations. The federal government, which would pay the bulk of the cost (although it has appropriated no money yet), requires the state agency to show citizen involvement as part of its Environmental Assess-ment (EA) planning process, Wilson noted.
       The separate meetings stemmed from CDOT's belief that the public process should move in a direction that local governments are comfortable with. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the government entities,” Watt explained. He added - when asked by the Pioneer why the public hasn't been informed about this part of the process - “Maybe we should offer more information on that at the next open house.”
       The non-public meetings have involved two ad hoc committees - an executive leadership team and a technical team, Watt said.
       The executive team consists of a mix of staff and elected officials from affected government entities (Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments). This group first met in late September, well before the first citizen meeting, and continues to meet every two months, Watt said. The technical team, which meets monthly, is looking at more detailed aspects of the issue, according to Watt.
       The vision statement begins: “Our vision for US 24 West improvement will integrate into the community fabric, while providing safety, accessibility and mobility.” It further pledges to consider existing government plans regarding the corridor, to improve signage, to look at different types of transportation modes, and “to protect neighborhoods, support economic vitality in the adjacent areas and (respect) natural and human environments.”
       The vision concludes with a statement regarding involvement by “stakeholders” (meaning people affected by the project) in the planning process. Such “meaningful involvement, as measured by the stakeholders, is necessary to gain endorsement of the improvements and support for coordinated implementation,” the vision concludes.
       Two of the 30 existing plans CDOT will be studying are the Midland/Fountain Creek Parkway Corridor Plan and the Westside Plan, according to a list provided by CDOT after the meeting. Both call for improving Highway 24's traffic flow, while enhancing the corridor's appearance.
       The public meetings, expected to continue roughly every other month this year, are supposed to help CDOT create a draft EA by the first part of 2006. A final EA would have to be approved (and funded) by the federal government before any construction could occur.

Westside Pioneer article