Hwy 24: Priority question lingers after City Council meeting

       Colorado Department of Trans-portation (CDOT) representatives gave a myriad of reasons for going forward with plans to expand Highway 24 through the Westside, along with a possible greenway, in a presentation to City Council Aug. 27. A rendering from the Colorado Department of
Transportation (CDOT) shows what an expanded Highway
24 could look like from the air. The view is east, toward a
new I-25/Cimarron interchange (including
eastbound-to-northbound flyover that’s an option on
current CDOT plans), with an also-new Eighth Street
interchange in the foreground. Removed to make room for
the larger asphalt swath are all the current commercial uses
on the south side of that interesection. A possible
replacement shopping center is shown  at the southwest corner.
Courtesy of CDOT
       But eventual road construction depends on local priorities in a competitive funding environment, explained Dave Watt, the CDOT resident engineer who is leading the $8.5 million study effort.
       Other than comments from three council members (all of whom live on or represent Westside areas), it was not clear from the meeting what kind of priority the current council might put on the approximately $250 million project, which would roughly double the highway's current width in places and include full interchanges at 8th and 21st streets.
       No vote was taken, nor any consensus sought. There was also no direction to the city manager to follow up on the issue and report back to council.
       Council member Scott Hente, whose District 1 includes Pleasant Valley and the northern Westside area, was clearly not a big fan. “When I think of priorities, Highway 24 doesn't pop to the top of my list,” he said. “We're wasting money at this point.”
       Another skeptic was council member Jerry Heimlicher, whose District 3 includes the southerly Westside. He brought up the most points of any council member, concerning business impacts (wondering about potential harm to individual property owners and the city tax base), the Ridge Road intersection (mentioning Manitou Springs' opposition to an overpass option that allows no access from the highway), the I-25/Cimarron interchange (which he thinks is a more urgent need than a broadened highway corridor/Fountain Creek floodway-greenway), and greenway funding questions (noting a comment by an Army Corps of Engineers official at a recent meeting that Highway 24 flood control is “a long way down their priority list”).
       It was Heimlicher who had asked to have CDOT give a Highway 24 presentation to council. The body had not heard a report on evolving project plans since July of '06 - before the greenway idea was even brought up. He was also concerned that staffers from various city departments have been helping CDOT plan greenway aspects without direction from council.
       Jan Martin, an at-large council member who lives on the Westside, expressed enthusiasm about the project's “visioning” approach. “I support the concept of a greenway,” she said. “It could improve life on the west side of town. We can't be all we can be if we don't keep visioning.”
       The CDOT effort, which started in 2004 and has included numerous public meetings, is to create an Environmental Assessment (EA) for an expanded and upgraded Highway 24 between I-25 and the Manitou Springs interchange. Plans are to complete the EA, after a last public hearing, in 2009, Mary Jo Vobejda, project lead for CDOT consultant CH2M HILL, told council.
       Because of the usual time it takes for new projects to get funded, the earliest any part of the work could occur - assuming it attains the necessary priority - is 2013 or 2014, she said. Even then, it would have to be phased in, Watt said, because of the minimal likelihood of $250 million coming available for the project all at once.
       Heimlicher said CDOT should make efforts to assure businesses about such a time frame and work strategy. “We will continue to get that message out there,” Watt said. He described the current plans as “still fairly broad-brush strokes,” adding that by the time of the EA it might be possible to reduce the size of the project footprint.
       A CDOT slide presentation to council stated that its study of “US 24 West” began as a result of the local Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) making it a “project priority.” (Note: The Westside Pioneer has asked PPACG for background information on this designation, but did not yet have an answer at press time.)
       The presentation described US 24 West as a corridor that has “existing congestion with operational failures” and pointed to population trends showing the combined population of El Paso and Teller County nearly doubling to almost 1 million residents between 2005 and 2035. Other reasons to study the corridor are its importance as a regional highway and its impact on “regional air quality conformity,” a slide stated.
       The greenway provides opportunities to address flooding, improve creek water quality, “restore aquatic habitat,” and “enhance trails and parks connections,” the presentation stated.
       Other greenway aspects would include rerouting the Midland Trail along the creek and helping Manitou Springs with redevelopment plans for its east end. CDOT representatives also cited past local plans (including the Westside Plan, Midland Plan and Midland Corridor Plan) that have called for creek enhancements.
       The meeting brought out an apparently new aspect - the US 24 West tie-in with flood-control plans farther downstream, stemming from the Fountain Creek Watershed Study. At one point, council member Margaret Radford told Dirk Draper, another CH2M HILL consultant, that any floodway work could need “a project or projects” to slow the creek flow for that reason. “We are aware of that,” Draper replied.
       In his presentation, Draper also described four options, previously shown at open houses, indicating possibilities for the Red Rock shopping center. The center would have been eliminated in an option with a close to natural, spread-out floodway, but Draper noted that this notion got the least support of the four.
       Federal and state transportation money can only be spent on highway right of way and to address highway-related flooding issues, it was explained. Eminent domain cannot be used for a greenway. But CDOT could “partner” in a greenway effort, the presentation stated. Possible partners that have been mentioned in greenway meetings include the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
       Although greenway studies - involving CDOT and its consultants, local government officials and some citizens - are continuing, the refinement of highway options is currently on hold while awaiting final regional approval of PPACG staff traffic predictions for 2035, Vobejda noted.

Westside Pioneer article