CDOT gives itself more time, money to complete Hwy 24 planning process

       A new time extension has been announced in the planning process for the Westside Highway 24 expansion.
       According to Dave Watt, project leader for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the anticipated date to complete the federally required Environmental Assessment (EA - a project detailing the work) is now February 2009.
       Watt revealed this news at a meeting Sept. 13 of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) board. The extension - basically needed for additional public comment and studies - will also cost more money. The current planning effort, which started in 2004, had a $7.5 million price tag; another $1 million will now be needed, Watt said.
       In conjunction with the new time frame, CDOT plans to schedule its next public meeting early in 2007 to unveil its “preferred alternative” - culling roadway/interchange designs from its nearly 30 current options and adding “corridor elements” such as park or trail possibilities. Details of the alternative will be narrowed between then and 2009, Watt explained.
       The EA had originally been slated for completion in draft form by the end of this year. At CDOT's Aug. 24 public meeting, Watt told the audience the planning time frame was being extended to late 2007. His PPACG announcement now supercedes that.
       The planning delay does not affect the project's construction status, which is currently unscheduled and unfunded. However, the project is a PPACG priority - a unanimous board vote reconfirmed that Sept. 13. This occurred after a state official told the board that if the PPACG wanted to eliminate Westside Highway 24 as a transportation priority - as he said had been rumored - its planning money could instead be routed to other projects (such as one in Trinidad).
       County Commissioner/ Westsider Sallie Clark joined the priority vote. She had said earlier in the meeting that she and other Westsiders are not opposed to improvements, but would like to see the planning effort slow down to make sure it doesn't wind up oversized or insensitive to the neighborhood.
       “I still think the magnitude is too large,” she said afterward. “But at least dialogue is going on and people are taking a second look at it. I'm hopeful but cautious.”
       The earliest that Highway 24 construction money could become available is the year 2012, according to officials' previous estimates.
       Some of the project's planning intricacies include designing for the flood plain (parts of the road are currently in it); planning possible realignments for Fountain Creek; squeezing interchanges into intersections that don't have room at present (mainly at 8th and 21st streets); implementing additional reviews; and responding to citizen concerns about the impacts on established neighborhoods and businesses and the Westside as a whole.
       Watt stressed that recent concerns about PPACG's future traffic projections were not the reason for the delay. However, he did say that the date for the next public meeting is timed for when PPACG has nearly finalized a new set of projections - based on the year 2035 instead of 2030 - which are expected early next year. Future traffic estimates are used by engineers in deciding the size of major transportation projects.
       Craig Casper, transportation director for PPACG, used the term “dead branch” to describe the 2030 projections, the accuracy of which has been questioned in analyses this summer by Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) President Welling Clark. The 2035 numbers will be fed through better computer software and should provide “a more realistic forecast,” Casper said.
       But with increasing growth in the region, he expressed doubt that the differences will be drastic enough to scale back Highway 24's project size appreciably.
       The expansion would be built along the current highway right of way (which had followed the original Midland Railway route) between I-25 and Manitou Springs - about 4 ˝ miles.

Westside Pioneer article