Hwy 24: CDOT renews planning effort

       All has been quiet on the Westside Highway 24 expansion-planning front, but that is about to change.
       The somewhat-contested 2035 Small Area Forecast - a program using computer-massaged data to predict future traffic patterns and volumes based on where people might live and work - has been given by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) staff to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) planning team to use on its Highway 24 Environmental Assessment (EA).
       This allows the team to start developing a “preferred alternative” for construction along the 4 ˝ miles of highway between I-25 and Manitou Springs, with the goal of having it ready for review by the end of the year, according to Mary Jo Vobejda of CH2M HILL, head of the CDOT consultant team.
       A key step in the EA process, this alternative had originally been anticipated to go before the public early this year, but has been delayed while CDOT waited for the 2035 numbers. A preferred alternative will detail the options CDOT favors for expanding the highway and intersections.
       The hand-off occurred without fanfare about two weeks ago, even though PPACG's methodology in developing the forecast has been questioned in several cases. One of these is Highway 24, where the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) has charged that the traffic projections could lead to an “overengineered” expansion.
       The forecast will eventually be used to plan the design and size of projects all over the region.
       In a phone interview, City Council member Larry Small mentioned hearing similar concerns about the forecast accuracy for Pow-ers Boulevard, Banning-Lewis Ranch and the city of Fountain.
       PPACG Transportation Director Craig Casper, who has been working on the forecast throughout the year, said the strongest reason to give it to CDOT at this time is that, “even if we froze it” (using the traffic numbers at present), a Highway 24 lane expansion each way could be justified. On top of that, he said the local numbers are only part of the equation, because at least 40 percent of the vehicles are regional. “Half of Teller County works in Colorado Springs,” Casper said. “They come down the pass a lot. This is where the congestion is.”
       The PPACG board had approved a draft of the forecast last spring, but agreed to take comments and review them at meetings every 90 days. Another board approval came in July, despite continued critical comments from the OWN and Fountain representatives.
       The October meeting date marked the next 90-day milestone, but Casper said in a late September interview he had not received any comments since the July meeting. Believing that all necessary revisions had been made, he felt OK with giving the 2035 program/data to CDOT. “They (the numbers are close enough now,” he said.
       Welling Clark, president of OWN, has since provided a detailed critique. At its Oct. 10 meeting, the board agreed to have its two citizen committees review this document and report back to the board at its next monthly meeting Nov. 14.
       That process will not impact the CDOT/Highway 24 effort, at least for now. What council member Jerry Heimlicher would like to see is a separate study of the forecast methodology, based on PPACG's revisions to date having been in response to Clark's analyses. “If we did all that on one man's numbers, we need to have the whole thing looked at again, from scratch,” he said.
       The reason he doesn't want to stop the process as a whole is that the board has been told that without a 2035 forecast in place by early next year, the region would jeopardize its federal air quality funding.
       When Envision 24 West started, the traffic projections had been based on the year 2030's Small Area Forecast. The requirement to switch to the next-five-year increment, factoring in any anticipated changes, occurred this year.
       Vobejda said her group will need two months of working with the data before being able to determine the necessary differences between 2030 and 2035. The team's overall hope is “to have the preferred alternative with the new 2035 numbers by the end of the year,” she said.
       She added her praise for the forecast program Casper and the PPACG have been using - new for the 2035 effort. “It's one of the most sophisticated ones there is,” she said. “I work with a lot of [regional agencies like PPACG] and the quality is quite a bit better than many.”

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