Ramps point of contention in Ridge Road/Hwy 24 plans

       If the Highway 24 expansion project went in today, drivers on Highway 24 would not be able to get off at Red Rock Canyon/ Ridge Road
       This no-access design, endorsed by a Manitou Springs City Council vote last month, reveals the first major schism among local governments that have been monitoring and reviewing Highway 24 expansion plans by the Colorado Department of Transpor-tation (CDOT) over the past four years.
       Earlier this year, Westside County Commissioner Sallie Clark had announced an agreement among herself, Colorado Springs Councilman Jerry Heimlicher and Manitou Springs Mayor Eric Drummond in favor of an overpass to which ramps could be added. Drummond was not present at the Manitou vote June 2.
       Any local opinions are advisory to CDOT, which itself will be told eventually by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) what parts of the project can be funded. The current CDOT assertion is that FHWA will allow funding for an overpass, but not the ramps, based on traffic studies for the year 2035 showing traffic there won't be busy enough to merit an interchange, according to CDOT engineer Dave Watt, who is coordinating the Highway 24 study.
       If those studies hold, money for the ramps would have to be found elsewhere. Watt estimated the cost at $5 million to $10 million. The good news for ramp supporters is that right of way exists at the Ridge intersection, so that ramps could be added at a later date, and money might be available through the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA). But it also is a reality of local road projects that those lacking consensus among government entities tend to slip in priority.
       The local design controversy, to some extent, comes down to types of transportation. Those perceiving cars as the pre-eminent travel mode see a value in providing access from the highway to Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Ridge Road and Colorado Avenue (which parallels the highway). Others who do not place as much importance on car travel like the idea that a no-access overpass would allow safe passage over the highway (or under, depending on the design) for non-motorized traffic.
       The latter scenario appealed to the Manitou council, which was acting under a recommendation from its Open Space Advisory Committee, according to City Planner Dan Folke. “It would be easier for hikers and bikers,” he said. “With ramps, basically there would be stop signs and those people would have to cross in front.”
       City Parks and the non-profit Trails and Open Space Coalition have also spoken out for the non-motorized safety resulting from a no-access intersection.
       The way a no-ramp overpass would work, highway drivers going to or from the Red Rock Canyon area would have to backtrack using Colorado Avenue. For instance, an eastbound motorist heading for Red Rock could go left at 31st Street, left at Colorado Avenue and left at Ridge Road.
       On the south side of the highway, in addition to Red Rock Canyon, are a few businesses and several dozen homes. North of the highway, along Colorado/Manitou Avenue, are mostly businesses in an area sometimes called “No Man's Land.” Manitou Springs has an urban renewal authority, seeking to redevelop the east end of its town along the avenue, and Sallie Clark has taken a lead role in seeking public improvements that would upgrade the part of the avenue that is either unincorporated or within Colorado Springs city limits.
       She expressed some annoyance that the current CDOT maps don't even show where the ramps would go if they were built. “I believe having the option for ramps in there is important,” Clark said. “Access is critical to the economic viability of the No Man's Land area.”
       Also concerned about access for people south of the highway, Clark has asked CDOT to hold a neighborhood meeting on the issue. A date has not yet been scheduled.
       One neighbor who wants to speak out for the ramps is Kathryn Lucas, developer of the Red Rock Canyon Estates subdivision south of the highway. “That's ridiculous,” she said, when told of the situation. “No access - that's not right.”
       A concern for some people in a no-ramp scenario is emergency vehicles. Part of the area south of the highway off Ridge Road is inside Manitou city limits, part inside Colorado Springs. According to Watt, such vehicles can get there via the avenue instead. “It wouldn't make a drastic impact,” he said.
       As for the economic question, Bill Koerner, a former Manitou Springs mayor who has represented his town at times during the Highway 24 planning process, said he thinks sending drivers down the highway to 31st Street would actually prove beneficial by getting them into a busy commercial area, from which they could fan out along the avenue in either direction.
       Other pluses from a no-ramp scenario, he said, would be CDOT-funded improvements at Ridge and Colorado Avenue (adding capacity to handle the expected “backtrack” traffic), narrower highway footprint (only needing four lanes west from Ridge instead of the six an interchange would require), and “you get higher speeds, anyway.”
       Kitty Clemens, the Economic Development Council (EDC) director for Manitou, sees the commercial picture differently. She said the city's Chamber of Commerce and EDC had recommended access at Ridge Road to the Manitou council. She wouldn't even mind an at-grade intersection with a stoplight - Watt said that would also qualify for funds and cost about the same to build as a no-ramp overpass.
       Clemens' main concern with a no-ramp overpass is potential isolation of the Manitou/Colorado Avenue area. “Anytime you take away an access point, it affects potential economic activity,” she said.
       Watt himself seemed to be siding with the latter point of view in a presentation to Colorado Springs City Council June 23, during which he briefly discussed the Ridge Road situation, saying that if local governments did put ramps in, the additional access could “encourage development there.”
       No one can predict what the situation will be like when work finally begins on the Ridge Road segment of Highway 24. Although work at Eighth Street could occur as early as 2016, the current schedule does not call for the Ridge improvements to start any earlier than 2031.
       Clemens thinks this time gap is a key point. Although FHWA will have to reassess the traffic situation (to verify the traffic projections are not drastically inaccurate), whenever the time comes to release money for the project, it's also a fact that the established plans cannot be changed easily (even 20-some years later). “Let's make sure we're not putting barriers in front of urban renewal,” she said.
       The current status of the Highway 24 planning effort has CDOT and its consultants readying what they are calling a “recommended alternative” for a public open house at an as-yet-unnamed date in August. This will give citizens a chance to look at the proposal - Ridge Road as well as other plans - for the designated section between I-25 and Manitou.
       CDOT will give a preliminary presentation to the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) board at its meeting Wednesday, July 9. The meeting will start at 9 a.m. in PPACG offices, 15 S. Chestnut St. The PPACG board consists of local government elected officials, including ones from Colo-rado Springs, Manitou Springs and the county.

Westside Pioneer article