Hwy 24: All-or-nothing scenario becoming clear

       All or nothing.
       This is the scenario, although never presented that way by Colorado Department of Transpor-tation (CDOT) planning consultants and engineers, that is gradually coming into focus for the proposed Westside High-way 24 widening project.
       Do you want a smaller project, such as the citizen-proposed “no harm” alternative supported by the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN)? You can't have it. Why? Because it doesn't meet federal standards, based on the predicted 66 percent traffic increase in about 30 years along the highway between I-25 and Manitou Springs.
       “Alternatives that do not provide more turn lanes and more through capacity do not adequately improve the mobility today or for the future, therefore, do not meet the purpose and need for the project,” reads a state analysis earlier this year of the “no harm” plan, which called for retaining the current two through lanes each way west of 14th Street.
       Federal standards apply because 24 is a U.S. highway, recently explained Craig Casper, transportation director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG).
       Then what about just putting in safety improvements, such as better access/egress and maybe a stoplight at Ridge Road? Sorry. You can't have that either. The Federal Highway Administration will not approve an Environmental Assessment (EA) that would allow additions to the traffic flow - example: longer acceleration lanes at 21st and 26th Street - unless they're backed up by a viable plan for the Westside segment, state engineers have explained.
       Faced with this paradigm, local opponents of CDOT proposals are investigating other options. County Commissioner Sallie Clark said she will continue to host meetings of the Working Group - a consortium of area political, civic and business leaders - to examine the project's issues and to look into how airtight the federal policies really are, while OWN is exploring the possibility of a federal exception at the key 21st Street intersection in hopes of a configuration less massive than the full interchange CDOT favors.
       CDOT planning-team engineers have said they expect to ask for an exception at 8th Street in order to avoid making that interchange larger than necessary just to solve one turning problem. “There would be much greater impacts without corresponding improvements,” CDOT project leader Dave Watt explained. But 21st Street would not qualify for an exception, he added, because there is room to create a fully qualifying interchange north of the Van Briggle Pottery building.
       As for the “nothing” aspect of all-or-nothing, area elected leaders could always decide to eliminate Westside Highway 24 as an area transportation priority. But a recent vote of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments board (which includes county, city and regional politicians) revealed that none of them are ready to do that.
       At this point in the Westside Highway 24 planning process, CDOT is developing a “preferred alternative” - which will be a combination of its favorite options for the project area. This will be unveiled at the next public meeting in early 2007, Watt has said, with the idea of “tweaking” it through the rest of the year, then working up a draft EA by the end of '07 and a final EA by early '09.
       In the meantime, the CDOT team remains open to alternatives that are in keeping with federal traffic-design standards. A recent alternative plan submitted by OWN President Welling Clark would have been like a slow freeway, with slimmed-down side-street overpasses, and Mary Jo Vobejda, CDOT's lead consultant in the planning effort, said this could have been acceptable. However, Clark said this week that he has dropped that idea, because the length of such overpasses north and south of the highway - despite the slimming efforts - could potentially impact homes and businesses on those side streets.
       CDOT has accepted one citizen idea - a “shortcut” through the Gold Hill Mesa property south of Highway 24 that could pull traffic away from the 21st Street intersection. However, CDOT analyses have indicated that not enough traffic would be pulled away to allow an at-grade intersection with less than three left turn lanes for westbound highway traffic turning south onto 21st Street.
       According to CDOT figures, three turn lanes would mean a Hwy 24 at 21st that would be a total of 13 lanes wide (it is eight today – four through, two left-turn, two acceleration/deceleration). CDOT planning-team members have indicated in public meetings and interviews that they prefer an interchange, which would move traffic more smoothly, but, with its access and egress lanes, would have a footprint as wide or wider.
       State engineers stress that major construction is not their aim. “We're not trying to make it big,” Vobejda said. “We just can't recommend or engineer something that isn't safe.”
       Such statements do not impress Ed Prenzlow, who owns an RV park off 26th Street, just south of Highway 24. “Some of the models (for an expanded highway) are wider than I-25,” he told Casper at a recent Working Group meeting.
       Prenzlow also asked why, if Highway 24 is such a key artery - described by CDOT officials at times as having “national significance” - why was it built to only two lanes each way east of Colorado Springs, where far more growth is occurring than on the Westside. In addition, that eastside segment of 24 “is a funnel for all of middle America (coming to Colorado Springs from the east),” Prenzlow said. “It just doesn't add up. And that's what scares me.”
       Still on the table is an alternative called “no-action (existing plus committed),” in which nothing would change except for the completion of certain already-planned side-street upgrades. However, Vobejda has previously stated that “the congestion now is unacceptable, and in the future it will be more unacceptable” and, as a result, no-action is not an option for an EA.

Westside Pioneer article