Council: Move up Cimarron interchange

       A replacement interchange at I-25 and Cimarron Street should be built before the year 2015, Colorado Springs City Council members agreed by consensus at their informal meeting Feb. 25.
       If approved by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) board March 12, that would leapfrog the interchange serving the downtown and Westside past the widening of I-25 north of Academy Boulevard on the regional priority list.
       The decision sets up a possible battle at the March 12 meeting, because limited expectations for state and federal transportation funding mean only one of the two will be affordable before 2015, according to PPACG staff.
       El Paso County Commissioner Wayne Williams, past chair of the PPACG board, has been a strong proponent of the widening. The Monument-area official has claimed that a third lane each way is needed because of interstate traffic jams that are occurring on that part of I-25 now.
       Council member/Vice Mayor Larry Small raised the Cimarron issue during a presentation by PPACG about its regional transportation plan through the year 2035. Small, one of three council members designated as PPACG board members, revealed irritation that the project had once been the second highest priority in the region - behind only the Highway 16 upgrade near Fort Carson.
       Now Cimarron/I-25 - estimated to cost $75 million - has dropped down PPACG staff's priority list to the point where it is not anticipated for construction until 2016 to 2021. Meanwhile, the I-25 north widening, priced at $221 million, has moved into the pre-2015 slot.
       Claiming support for Cimarron from area governments as well as Colorado Springs, Small said the only disagreement has come from “one county commissioner [he did not say Williams' name] who thinks he's responsible for I-25 north. It was my recollection that I-25 north was in the outer zone [of time] and this was in the closer zone, and I don't remember it being the will of the board to make that change.”
       Mayor Lionel Rivera agreed with Small, saying he recalled a previous vote at PPACG to make Cimarron a high priority.
       The interchange would have been part of the recently completed COSMIX I-25 project (along with the Fillmore interchange, now estimated for 2021-2025) had there been more money.
       Westsider Sallie Clark, an El Paso County commissioner and PPACG board member, until now has been the chief proponent for getting Cimarron/I-25 done sooner, saying it is key to access for residents and area visitors but the current structure, built about 50 years ago, is congested and unsafe.
       Craig Casper, transportation planner for PPACG, did not dispute Small. He said the agency's staff did a recent analysis and found that a Cimarron interchange replacement “has a better cost ratio than the widening of I-25 north.”
       “That's good,” Small replied. “Combine that with a preponderance of political will and support, and it sounds like we have a project.”
       Rob MacDonald, PPACG executive director, told council he thought the PPACG board had already taken a position to move Cimarron up the priority list. However, he clarified in a follow-up phone interview, the board has not yet decided what would have to be moved down the list to make that possible. He said he expects that discussion to occur March 12.
       The priority vote would be separate from the 2035 regional transportation plan itself, MacDonald said. That plan lists - but does not prioritize - transportation projects that have been deemed desirable by area governments and for which money might be available by 2035.
       The other Westside projects in the 2035 plan include the Highway 24 widening work between I-25 and Manitou Springs and several upgrades/ replacement projects that were on the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority list when voters approved it in 2004.
       The plan also includes transit and non-motorized elements, reflecting citizen requests for more emphasis on those modes that came to the PPACG last year during the plan effort's public outreach phase, called “Moving Forward.”
       In another issue related to the 2035 plan, council reached a consensus on the envisioned Constitution Avenue extension from the Fontanero/I-25 interchange (intended to relieve east-west traffic). Council member Margaret Radford, the chief critic of the idea's cost-effectiveness, said she was OK with the four-lane expressway being in the plan as long as it retains the conditions council put on it six years ago. This included not considering it for construction until 2020, at the earliest. PPACG's current priority list shows the project being built no earlier than 2031.
       One Radford question at council regarded Constitution's expense. The current PPACG list shows it costing $15 million, but Craig Blewitt, city transportation planner, said its real cost would be well over $100 million. Casper told council it still could be affordable.
       He elaborated in a later interview that the extra money would have to come from the area's road maintenance funds. However, he offered the opinion that such “is not a good idea,” because his projections show the area having a shortfall in road-maintenance funds by the year 2035 approaching $2 billion.

Westside Pioneer article