Hwy 24: Sparks fly at meeting

       Can the proposed West-side Highway 24 expansion be made smaller? TOP: How the CDOT project team envisions a future Highway 24/21st Street interchange (the Midland 
roundhouse historic building is at left).
CDOT rendering
       The question took on a feisty tone at the Aug. 24 Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) public meeting when two Westside community leaders charged that a smaller-scale, locally generated plan was not being accurately represented by CDOT.
       Overall, the roughly 2 ˝-hour session at the West Intergenerational Center was attended by about 170 citizens, according to a CDOT project-study team estimate. Among other things, they learned that the study's time frame has been extended about a year - from the originally announced late 2006/early 2007 for an Environmental Assessment (EA) to late 2007; that a widening/ reworking of Fountain Creek with a possible trail could be incorporated into highway plans, and that a park-and-ride is being considered at the 31st Street intersection.
       CDOT's tentative plans call for a greatly widened highway between I-25 and Manitou Springs. Priced at about $240 million, it would include interchanges at 8th and 21st street and the removals of roughly 40 homes and 50 businesses.
       Amy Filipiak, a board member of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), spoke up during the meeting, and OWN President Welling Clark confronted Mary Jo Vobejda, the chief CDOT consulting engineer, just afterward. Filipiak sought - and was given, after some project-team consideration - two minutes of microphone time to summarize a local proposal known as the Westsiders' Plan. She noted that the plan offers a “major interchange” at 14th Street that would have the effect of relieving traffic congestion at both 21st and 8th streets.
       Clark laced his disagreement with a charge that Vobejda's characterization of the plan during the meeting had been “dishonorable.” When she denied this and Clark continued to dispute her actions, she said, “We'll agree to disagree. Good night,” and walked away.
       Vobejda, who works for the CH2M HILL consulting firm, said later she had not intended to give an incorrect portrayal, but conceded that OWN and the CDOT project-study team are not yet seeing eye to eye on the best solution for handling increasing highway traffic through the Westside.
       One irritant for Clark is that CDOT has gauged that the slim overpasses he has proposed for most north-south streets in his modified Westsiders' Plan will have a much longer footprint than he thinks they would. One such disagreement is at 21st Street, where Vobejda has determined that such an overpass would extend nearly to Broadway Street on the south and Curcharras Street on the north.
       Clark also has suggested that CDOT's traffic projections for 2030 - the year currently being used for planning highway traffic needs - are overestimated and/or wrongly calculated. Answers have been requested from a representative of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG), which produced the numbers, at a meeting of the Working Group Monday, Sept. 11. The Working Group is an informal committee of area business, political and civic leaders who have been meeting with OWN and CDOT with the announced goal of seeking a lower-impact plan.
       The OWN board has not yet reviewed Clark's modified plan. The group has scheduled a public meeting Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. at the Gold Hill Substation, which will have Highway 24 on the agenda.
       Vobejda and CDOT project leader Dave Watt said after the meeting that the EA date was moved back because of greater-than-anticipated public interest in the project as well as a delay in obtaining Fountain Creek flow data (from a separate study effort) that affects calculations of potential flooding near the highway. Another possibility - one being discussed with area government entities - is working a creek/highway trail in along the corridor's length. “We believe we'd be able to put the trail along the channel bottom and never have to cross a street,” she said.
       During the meeting, more than 70 questions were posed from the audience, with project team members getting to about 50 of them and pledging to post answers to the remainder on the project website (us24west.com) in the near future.
       Fountain Creek impacts occur in most of the state's intersection options. Including creek improvements in the project would make the corridor safer and have the additional benefit of delisting some of the homes or businesses in the vicinity from a flood plain designation, Vobejda said. However, she added that it is not known what this work would do to the project cost or to what extent this expense would be covered with project money.
       The park-and-ride idea is based on the proximity of Red Rock Canyon Open Space and the 31st Street area being a logical transition from current Mountain Metro in-town bus routes to a planned express bus up to Woodland Park, Watt said. No specific site is envisioned, although Watt said the team is looking at the northeast side of 31st, which currently has an RV park, and the northwest side, on which a new Kentucky Fried Chicken/ A&W store is being built.
       Some of the issues that were raised by citizens are as follows:
       A suggested “bottleneck” west of Manitou Springs. This question related to the project going no farther than Manitou's first exit while engineers are calling the highway a regionally important route to the higher mountains. The project team denies a bottleneck will occur. Tom Ragland of CH2M HILL said the project team believes “operations will work through this corridor” (up Ute Pass) without a future expansion.
  • Economic viability. Vobejda said an economic study, still in draft form, indicates that better roads will ease travel from outside the area and thus help business. This is good for the Westside, according to Kyle Blakely of the project team, because the Westside has twice as much commercial square footage as the area around it can support.
  • Noise barriers. Such plans will not occur until later in the planning process. Project team engineer Dirk Draper noted that currently City Parks has not decided what to do for its Red Rock Canyon property. Walls stop noise, but they also block views, he noted.
  • Federal plan acceptance. CDOT handouts indicated that none of the plans for Eighth Street meet federal standards in all respects. In response to the question about this point, CDOT engineers said that they could file for an exception, in which the Federal Highway Administration is known to allow such situations, as long as the intersection itself substantially complies.
  • Where is growth coming from? Ragland said 40 percent of the projected traffic would be vehicles passing through, with the other 60 percent starting or ending somewhere in the 4.5-mile area.
  • What will happen if the projected traffic numbers do prove to be high? Vobejda responded that the numbers would have to be significantly less to make enough of a difference to revise the project substantially.
           Next for the project team is to start paring down the optional layouts for the different intersections. Nearly 30 were shown at the meeting. Some of these were marked as “not recommended,” and the goal now is to have just two or three candidates for each cross-street, Watt said.

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