New Cimarron interchange slips down transportation priority list

       In defending plans for a greatly expanded Westside Highway 24, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) engineers have often pointed to the regional need. More than a third of the trips along the highway between I-25 and Manitou Springs start and end outside the area, according to studies engineers have provided.
       That ought to mean a very high construction priority for the Cimarron/ Highway 24 interchange at I-25, County Commissioner Sallie Clark reasoned in a recent interview. However, such is not the case, and she would like to know why.
       “It needs to be a higher priority,” said the commissioner, whose district includes the Westside, noting that in the 2005 Referendum D (which didn't pass), Cimarron had been shown as number two in the region. “We fought too hard to get that in there.”
       Nowadays, Cimarron remains on the region's priority list for major transportation projects, but it's somewhere below number three and no longer even with a specific number, according to Rob MacDonald, director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Govern-ments (PPACG) regional planning agency.
       The list, set by staff in concert with PPACG board members/area elected officials, currently shows two Fort Carson-related projects (the State Highway 16 interchange at I-25 and a widening of 16 to Highway 85-87 - cumulatively about $70 million) at the top of the list, with a $16 million Baptist Road interchange upgrade at number three.
       After those is a pool of “bulleted” projects, none of which is necessarily more important than the others. Any of them could be built at any time, depending on what local government entities decide they want when transportation funding becomes avalable from state or federal sources, MacDonald explained.
       The Cimarron interchange is one of the bulleted projects, but even that status has a couple of complications. One is its price tag. Estimated currently at $110 million, it is one of the higher-ticket projects in the region. Such an amount seldom is pried loose at one time. And even if such an amount came available, there is no guarantee local officials would not prefer to use it for several smaller bullet-priority projects instead, MacDonald noted. For instance, $110 million could instead be spread out for a new Fillmore/I-25 interchange (estimated cost $30 million), better Peterson Field access ($40 million), plus any of several other lower-cost projects that have the necessary environmental clearance, he pointed out.
       Fillmore, like Cimarron, was cleared in the 2004 I-25 expansion EA, but the $150 million for COSMIX wasn't enough to encompass it in that project. Other than new COSMIX-related on/off-ramps, both still have essentially the same configurations that were designed for them when I-25 was built in the late 1950s.
       The other complication for a new Cimarron interchange, according to MacDonald, is that its environmental clearance is now tied in with the Highway 24 expansion because those planners have introduced interchange alterations they think would work better with their proposed six-lane overpass at Eighth Street. But application for the Highway 24 expansion Environmental Assessment (EA) is not anticipated now until 2009, according to Envision 24 West planning team.
       Clark is not pleased with that situation. She is already concerned that the Highway 24 plan is too big, with a “loop-the-loop [that] doesn't seem practical.” Instead of linking the two projects, “we should get an updated EA for the interchange itself,” she said.
       One of the reasons that Baptist Road has moved up on the list is that people in that area are helping with the costs. The road has its own rural transit authority, collecting a sales tax earmarked solely for its improvements.
       Another key area project that is also now an environmentally cleared bullet item is the Powers Boulevard expansion to I-25 (over $100 milion), MacDonald said. And, current state funds ($30 million) have been delegated to help the city and county with their major Woodmen Road expansion project.
       Clark emphasized that she's not downplaying the need for other priority-list projects, “but I'm concerned that we will push Cimarron to the side.” Half-jokingly, she added, in reference to statements by Ute Pass-area PPACG representatives this fall about how badly their commuters and visitors need the Westside Highway 24 expansion, “If that's so important to Park and Teller counties, then they should want the Cimarron interchange to move up on the list.”
       What would help clear the project logjam - possibly including Cimarron - would be the region's receiving $400 million in voter-approved state funds dating back to 1999. (It had been $550 million before COSMIX). But approving isn't having (MacDonald calls the amount an “IOU”), so for now, Cimarron remains a bullet with no construction target in sight.

Westside Pioneer article