Hwy 24: Neighborhood miffed about 15th Street ‘cut-through’

       Although a preferred alternative is still at least two months away (see adjoining story), 15th Street appears to be the state's front-runner for a new access that would relieve Highway 24 traffic from Gold Hill Mesa and possibly even allow vehicles to travel - with the help of a new overpass - between Gold Hill and Colorado Avenue. Standing in the middle of 15th Street neighborhood
residents show what they think of the Colorado Department
of Transportation (CDOT) idea to make 15th a “cut-through”
between Highway 24 and Colorado Avenue. The view is
south toward Vermijo Street.
Westside Pioneer photo
       Such a layout was included in a Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) presentation to City Council in August. In a recent interview, Mary Jo Vobejda, CDOT's lead consultant on the Highway 24 expansion planning effort called “Envision 24 West,” said there are several plusses to the idea. Primary among these are the street's size (about 5 feet farther across than 14th, which would have to be widened if it were chosen), topography (the higher terrain just north of 24 would accommodate an overpass better than 14th) and the existence of a stoplight now at 15th and Colorado.
       Such arguments do not impress those in the 15th Street neighborhood, many of whom have lived there a long time. They have historically enjoyed a virtual cul-de-sac, at least in the block between Cucharras and Vermijo streets, but the proposed access - which they call a “cut-through” - conjures a painful future of traffic, commercialization and possibly even lost buildings.
       “I think things should get better, not worse,” said Marta Lacombe, 1501 W. Cucharras. “This is a street for bicycle kids.”
       Another unpleasant aspect for residents is that the “cut-through” would force the removal of the family-owned Colorado Fence Company, which has been on Vermijo at 15th for 27 years, according to the owner's son-in-law, Ron Huery, who lives with his wife Sherri at 1505 W. Cucharras. “There are three generations of our family in this block,” Sherri pointed out. One of these is her sister, Laurie Anderson, 1501 W. Vermijo.
       The Colorado Fence owners declined to be interviewed, but the family members indicated that they would prefer to stay.
       Other long-timers include Betty Hill, who has lived in her house at 223 S. 15th since 1958. “They'd have a tough time tearing my house down,” she said. “It's solid brick… I wouldn't live anywhere else.” Another is Bill Day, 1510 W. Cucharras, whose family has lived in the same house since 1919.
       What particularly angers C.J. Hendrickson, 1504 W. Cucharras St., is that she thought the issue had been taken care of at a neighborhood meeting with CDOT consultants last November. “There wasn't anyone who spoke before the entire group who supported a cut-through on 15th street,” she said. “I was told to the effect that it would not be an issue from there on out because everyone had voiced opposition.”
       But meeting discussions are not the only way public opinion is gauged, according to Vobejda. The planning team takes comments anywhere, anytime, and does not give higher importance to those heard during a meeting. Thus, “while it is certainly true a vocal group opposed it at the meeting,” she said, “afterward half of the people came up to us” to offer suggestions on how a cut-through could be accomplished. “The people who live on 14th wanted the access on 15th, and the people on 15th wanted 14th,” she summarized.
       A written record of the comments, during or after the meeting, was not made, according to Cheryl Everitt, part of the CDOT team. “This was not an open house and no comment forms were distributed,” she said.
       The idea of a new highway access between 8th and 21st came from Colorado Springs officials early in the Envision 24 West effort. Craig Blewitt, Transportation Planning manager, said the city asked CDOT to look at it, based on the realization that the 210-acre subdivision anticipates 1,000 homes and a 67-acre commercial area.
       “We just wanted to see if it made sense,” Blewitt said. “There's a lot of traffic at 8th and 21st. What the project team is looking at is if the street would need to go to Colorado Avenue or not.”
       Gold Hill Mesa developer Bob Willard is a big proponent of some kind of access in that area. Otherwise, his subdivision would cause 21st especially to back up excessively in a few years, he has predicted. Willard, who would have to pay for the overpass (CDOT would pay for the ramps), prefers 15th for the same reasons as Vobejda. But is concerned about delays, worrying that at the rate the project is going, “it won't get built in my lifetime.” While sympathetic to the established neighborhood, he said sometimes change is necessary for progress. “The older areas don't want any change whatsoever,” he said. “But if we don't upgrade the infrastructure, we'll have a catastrophe in 15 years.”
       One proposal, not shown yet on Envision 24 West maps, is to create an interim right-in, right-out on the south (Gold Hill Mesa) side of the highway in the area of 15th Street. The idea would be to relieve traffic from the subdivision in the years before the widening project gets started. (The earliest possible construction start is 2013, Vobejda has predicted).
       There's a key point to the interim plan: If it does go in, then the overpass would be a certainty to go in later. Vobejda explained that the right-in/right-out “makes sense if ulimately he (Willard) will have access. It allows him to continue to develop. And it shows [potential subdivision investors] that there will be two access points.”
       Conversely, it would mislead investors, and potentially cause traffic snarls, to have a temporary access for a few years, then take it away, she said.
       An overpass could be installed without continuing the street to 15th, although Vobejda believes that such would isolate the neighborhood; also, and “there would seem to be a benefit in having connectivity between north and south.”
       She said most of the traffic on a 15th Street access would be “local trips.” She gave as an example a dry-cleaner who could have customers on both sides of the highway but would not need to use the major interchanges (at 8th and 21st) to get to them.
       As currently proposed, the overpass would not be full-access. People going westbound on the highway could get off, but not back on. And, people going east could not get off the highway, while only those on the overpass could get on. Interestingly, this design would actually mean less access for the north side of the highway, which now has a right-in/right-out for westbound traffic at 14th Street. But the idea again would be to keep the access just for local trips; by not having a full interchange, “cut-through” motorists would be less likely to go that way, she said.
       Vobejda knows that no decision is going to please everyone. She confirmed that the opposition from 15th Street folks has been made known to all the people who are involved in planning the project and that opposition will be factored into the final decision. But in the end, “we're looking for the solution with the fewest impacts, affecting the fewest properties, and causing the least disruption, yet meeting all the goals of the project,” she said. “That's the balance we're trying to strike.”
       Other 15th Street-area neighbors (all opposed) who spoke to the Westside Pioneer for this story were Archie and Luisa Rivera, 215 S. 15th; Kelly Primus, 116 S. 15th; Dan and Kathy Bowman, 1503 W. Pikes Peak Ave.; David and Linda Boyce, 1538 W. Cucharras; Rod and Eve Carlson, 214 S. 15th; and Marcie Jardell, 119 S. 15th.

Westside Pioneer article