Teller, Park show how much they want an expanded Hwy 24
Heimlicher, Clark rebut project ‘derail’ accusations

       The Westside Highway 24 issue erupted at the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) board meeting Sept. 12, with accusations from Teller County Commis-sioner Jim Ignatius that certain board members were trying to “derail behind the scenes” an expansion effort that he called “very, very important” to the mountain communities.
       He did not name names, but his comments made it clear he was speaking about Jerry Heimlicher, whose City Council district includes much of the older Westside; El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who is also a Westside business owner; and the City of Manitou Springs in general. Ignatius also got supporting comments from other mountain-area representatives, Park County Commissioner Leni Walker and Woodland Park Mayor Gary Crane.
       “That's a bunch of cr--,” Heimlicher angrily respon-ded at the beginning of his rebuttal. Both he and Clark defended their positions as being in support of improvements but also honorably representing constituents who are concerned about potential negative impacts on their homes, businesses and the tax base in general.
       “We all have dual roles,” Heimlicher said, referring to the way each PPACG board member is an elected official representing his or her government in addition to the region as a whole.
       Clark asked other board members to see it from her point of view. “I would expect all of us [on the board] to be involved in the same way if this was in our backyard,” Clark said.
       Regarding the tax base, she said the value of the properties to be removed for the highway, based on Assessor's Office numbers, is $195 million, and the tax loss would be $1.5 million in a year.
       The dispute represents the first time since the EA effort started in 2004 that such a passionate desire for the highway project at the foot of Ute Pass has been displayed by mountain-area politicos on the PPACG board. Ignatius described the current 4 ½-mile highway stretch between I-25 and Manitou Springs as “a quagmire three times a day and on weekends,” and charged that without improvements Teller commuters, tourists and Cripple Creek gamers will be discouraged and “our economy will come to a screeching halt.”
       PPACG is a regional agency including El Paso, Teller and Park counties. One of its roles is to organize the planning and prioritizing of regional transportation projects, such as Westside Highway 24.
       The meeting brought out other regional issues related to Highway 24. In comments and a two-page handout, PPACG Executive Director Robert MacDonald summarized long-range goals to improve Highway 24 all the way up Ute Pass, based on the “local approval process” by member governments calling for such work. The overall scope, he said, consists of three areas - east, central and west - with the current project being the latter. He said local government support for an expanded Westside Highway 24 with interchanges at 8th, 21st and 31st streets goes back all the way to 1974.
       Heimlicher questioned how solid such plans have truly been, pointing out that nobody investing in the corridor in those intervening years received government warnings about what might be coming.
       Another regional comment came from City Council member/PPACG board member Larry Small. He remarked that Highway 24 is “one of three main roads to the mountains [in Colorado],” adding that “if we don't distribute the traffic among those three, it's not going to be very good.”
       In the end, the heated discussion culminated in a new affirmation from the PPACG board for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to continue with its Environmental Assessment (EA) process on the highway section through the Westside.
       PPACG Board Chair Wayne Williams (a county commissioner from the Monument area) told Regional CDOT Director Tim Harris that the full board consensus was “to go forward with the process… so CDOT isn't wondering if we want to kill the project.”
       It had been a private meeting in August including Harris, Heimlicher, Clark and a Manitou representative that triggered Ignatius' “behind the scenes” charge (he referenced it in his comments).
       In his rebuttal, Heimlicher reminded the board that he had publicly talked about the meeting beforehand, and that the participants' main goal was to “make the process more sensitive to the people along the corridor.”
       Clark said it would have been better if Ignatius had come to her first, before taking what he had heard and making it public.
       Ignatius did not say where he had gotten his information.
       Harris told the PPACG board that “it was not my impression” that the participants wanted to kill the project; however, he expressed satisfaction at the board's restating its support.
       Asked to elaborate on her concerns after the meeting, Clark said that while she believes “the majority of Westsiders believe we need improvements along the corridor,” there are issues with how affected businesses are being dealt with (not feeling like part of the process) and confusion about facts stemming from open houses where people don't always hear the same message (a problem also stated by Heimlicher). Other “disagreements,” she said, include the size of intersection improvements, sound walls and the height and width of the planned roadway.
       The discussion began with CDOT and its “Envision Highway 24” consultants presenting a project-planning update similar to the one they had given to City Council in late August. Emphasizing the regional aspects, Mary Jo Vobejda of CH2M HILL pointed out the CDOT finding that 40 percent of the trips begin and end outside the interstate-to-Manitou segment.
       Funded with $8.5 million, CDOT plans to have the EA complete by 2009. Assuming construction money becomes available, the earliest any work would begin is 2013, CDOT officials have said.

Westside Pioneer article