Temporary ‘brakes’ put on CDOT Highway 24 plans

       An informal meeting of local political leaders and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) June 13 reached a consensus to temporarily “put the brakes on” CDOT's Westside Highway 24 upgrade planning.
       The proposal - and the phrase - came from Westside resident and El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who won agreement from meeting attendees that included State Sen. Ed Jones, State Rep. Michael Merrifield, District 9 Transportation Commissioner Terry Schooler, and representatives of U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and U.S. Congressman Joel Hefley.
       “This thing scares me to death,” Clark said, in reference to CDOT's plans to date, which include a greatly widened roadway as well as full interchanges at 8th and 21st streets that would cumulatively force the removal of dozens of businesses and homes. She also questioned the wisdom of planning a fix that would be so expensive (the current estimate is $240 million) that it might “never happen.”
       Based on meeting discussion, the “brake” time - expected to be a month or more - will allow the formation of a broad-based committee of business people, citizens and appointed and elected leaders that will hash out alternative ideas, economic impacts and public awareness and gather additional information from CDOT consultants, such as side views that would show road elevations.
       Meanwhile, in response to questions raised at the meeting, Rob MacDonald, director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG), agreed to have his agency's consultants re-examine the accuracy of their 25-year traffic projections, which have been cited by CDOT in justifying major upgrades to the 6 ½-mile highway segment between I-25 and Manitou Springs.
       Dave Leinweber, owner of the year-old Angler's Covey at 21st and Highway 24 - which would be removed in one of the interchange scenarios - expressed incredulity at one of the projections, stating that hourly northbound traffic on 21st Street will increase from 900 now to 2,700 in the year 2030. “There's no reason for them to go north,” he exclaimed.
       Another of the numbers shows more vehicles on 21st Street even than those going west on Highway 24 from Manitou Springs.
       According to Dave Watt, project leader for CDOT, the state has already spent $3 million of about $7 million in its Westside Highway 24 planning budget, which has been slated to culminate in an Environmental Assessment by the end of this year. Most of the money is being used to contract with transportation consulting firm CH2M HILL, which in turn has hired four main subcontractors and several minor ones, according to Mary Jo Vobejda, the lead for CH2M HILL. Funding has also gone into eight CDOT-organized public meetings, dating back to Fall 2004.
       No meeting date for the new committee has been set yet. Clark said she would need about two weeks to put the desired group together.
       It's not crystal clear what might result from the new committee. The CDOT representatives, as well as Schooler, repeatedly noted that federal funding would not be available if the highway does not meet government congestion-relief standards. Federal funding was also the reason given when Clark asked why the study could not be confined to the area with the most traffic problems, namely I-25 to Eighth Street. Federal funding typically pays the lion's share of major state highway projects.
       The meeting, attended by more than 30 people in a room at City Hall, was organized by the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN). OWN President Welling Clark has been doing the main research on traffic-number anomalies.
       MacDonald defended PPACG's role, noting that a few years ago area governments had approved a long-range plan that called for improvements to Highway 24 all across Colorado Springs. Merrifield agreed that a “broader context was approved,” but no one had anticipated a project of the current scope.
       In agreeing with Sallie Clark's proposal, Merrifield requested that the new committee focus especially on the alternative plan that OWN has advocated. When asked what CDOT has done about the plan so far, consulting engineer Mary Jo Vobejda said it has been studied in some respects, but a full response would take another month.
       Although not identified as such at the meeting, that plan is essentially the “First Do No Harm” proposal that was written up by the Westside Pioneer in its March 9 issue (and featured as such in OWN's spring newsletter, the Westside Story). In seeking a solution that removed no homes or businesses, the plan proposes keeping the at-grade intersections (except for a full-access overpass at Ridge Road); implementing cross-street improvements to eliminate bottlenecks; and widening the highway to three lanes as far west as a new 14th Street interchange that would relieve 21st Street congestion by shortcutting southbound traffic through Gold Hill Mesa.
       OWN, the city-recognized older-Westside advocacy group, has offered modifications to the plan during meetings this spring of its citizens' highway task force. Welling Clark alluded to these changes during the June 13 meeting in saying that the OWN plan would “minimize” business/residential removals and in suggesting overpasses (not interchanges) at additional intersections. Also, the OWN newsletter article had suggested widening the road farther west than 14th, leaving room for acceleration/ deceleration lanes if traffic increases noticeably in the future.
       Brian Wess, a member of the El Paso County Highway Advisory Committee (HAC), said he believed a new approach to the issue is necessary after his own experience with HAC, in which CDOT made a brief presentation and it “sounded good,” he recalled. But after getting a more detailed presentation from CDOT and CH2M HILL June 13 - this occupied the first hour and a half of the three-hour meeting - he said he now has concerns about the direction of the Westside Highway 24 effort.
       Jan Doran, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO), criticized the open houses CDOT has been using in the past year as a “divide and conquer” technique that keeps people from receiving and sharing the same information at the same time.
       A call for a harder look at CDOT's Westside Highway 24 planning process also came up at the City Council meeting June 12, when Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, whose district includes the Westside, asked City Manager Lorne Kramer to organize a CDOT presentation to the Citizens Transportation Advisory Board (CTAB), which advises City Council. From the plans he's seen so far, “it's an enormous thing,” Heimlicher said. “It looks like a caterpillar going up and over.” He added his puzzlement that its six lanes would revert to four going up Ute Pass or into the downtown.
       At-large Councilman Tom Gallagher, a Westside resident, supported Heimlicher, saying “no one knows where this came from or how it got so big. But at the end of the day, Westsiders believe we must do something. Their position is 'do no harm.' That's not a bad position to have.”

Westside Pioneer article