‘I thought I’d walked into Los Angeles’
Little enthusiasm for CDOT’s Westside Highway 24 plans at Nov. 10 open house

       If Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) engineers were looking for strong support for their Westside Highway 24 freeway or expressway options at the Nov. 10 open house, indications are that they didn't get it.
       Nearly all the individuals interviewed by the Westside Pioneer during the meeting or afterward were dismayed with the magnitude of the proposals. Especially criticized was the freeway version, which would cut off the main access to Old Colorado City at 26th Street. Many people questioned the wisdom of putting in a six- to eight-lane roadway - freeway or expressway - through the Westside when only four Highway 24 lanes go up Ute Pass and four through downtown Colorado Springs.
       “I gasped when I walked into the room,” commented State Rep. Michael Merrifield. “I thought I'd walked into Los Angeles.”
       In all, CDOT consultants said a total of 239 people signed in to view displays and simulations during the three-hour gathering in the West Middle School cafeteria. The turnout was by far the largest of any of the five meetings CDOT has hosted since starting the public planning process for the 6 ½-mile segment between I-25 and Manitou Springs a year ago.
       The open house was the first at which CDOT engineers have revealed the upgrades they think are necessary to solve traffic problems on Westside Highway 24 through the year 2030. Attendees were asked to offer comments on the three options - freeway, expressway or “no action” (which includes any existing and planned improvements).
       CDOT's announced plan for the Nov. 10 meeting was to get an idea which of the three options people favored (with the understanding that the no-action has never been selected in a roadway project before). Afterward, CDOT Project Manager Dave Watt said he didn't know if CDOT would entertain another option - as suggested by Merrifield, County Commissioner Sallie Clark and others - even if public comments showed strong support for a project that would have less impact than either of the current options. Both the expressway (about 170 feet wide) and the freeway (about 130 feet) would take up considerably more space than the current highway's 90 feet.
       Long-time Westside civic leader Dave Hughes was skeptical of how bad the problems really are. “I asked (the engineers) why this is being done, and I got the typical answer that it's to solve traffic problems, maybe gridlock in 10 to 20 years,” he said. “I question that. I'd like to know what they're basing their traffic projections on.”
       One of the few voices in at least partial favor of the plans was Robert Willard, head of the group developing Gold Hill Mesa, southeast of Highway 24 and 21st Street, who thinks the freeway option would be “the best, long term,” but is willing to work with the expressway mode as well. In his opinion, the 21st street intersection “has failed at certain times,” and he has held off planning parts of his property nearest to it for the past year to see what CDOT would come up with.
       Westsider/City Council member Randy Purvis, the only council member at the meeting, noted that where he lives he can hear the highway now with his windows open. He doubted the value of either CDOT proposal. “A freeway would be a huge expense, and I'm not sure it goes anywhere,” he said. As for the expressway, “it's too wide of a right of way.” He suggested that people considering that option look at Powers Boulevard between Platte Avenue and Woodmen Road and ask themselves, “Is that what you really want?”
       Nancy Stovall, president of the Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) merchants group, said a meeting is being set up between CDOT and OCCA to discuss the 26th Street issue. “"Anything that closes off 26th Street is not acceptable," she said. She was among several Old Colorado City merchants at the meeting, all of whom expressed similar fears that losing the access would kill their business and damage property values.
       At a meeting this week of the Old Colorado City Security & Maintenance District committee (made up of district property owners), three members - Cretee Nemmer, Mary Purinsh and John Edwards, spoke against the plan, and a committee consensus was to send a representative to all future Highway 24 meetings.
       Long-time district committee member Bill Grimes, interviewed at the Highway 24 open house, said he was OK with the expressway option because it would have the potential of inviting motorists to Old Colorado City. By contrast, “a freeway would devastate the economy of Old Colorado City,” he said. “Everyone would be wiped out because of the lack of access.”
       Regarding the expressway option, Stovall added the concern that its greater width might lead to more homes and businesses being removed, which would adversely impact many people who live or work near Old Town.
       “I didn't like any of the options,” Merrifield said. “The least objectionable was to do nothing.” The construction proposals, he added “are far too grandiose. I'm concerned about the impact on the Westside and that special feel there. I don't think we need a huge freeway cutting it in two.”
       Jim Keeney, owner of an auto-body repair shop just northeast of 14th Street and Highway 24, would be impacted as a result of envisioned upgrades not only to the highway but to 14th Street. “Just longer on- or off-ramps would solve the problem,” he said. “No matter how many lanes you have, the slow people will still drive slow. It doesn't do any good to widen it; it would just impact more people.”
       Manitou Springs Mayor Marcy Morrison conceded that it is “hard for any of us to look 20 years out.” Nevertheless, she said, “I question what it is going to do to the neighboring areas, including Manitou Springs.”
       Arlene Grass, who has lived in her house on Kiowa Street since 1950, said everything she saw at the meeting was “entirely too wide.” She was not impressed by the meeting format, in which engineers stationed by large maps answered citizen questions about the different options, “It seemed like a bunch of gobby-gook, like they were trying to sell people that what they're doing is just great.”
       Lori Daugherty, co-owner of Old Towne Optical & Gift Shop, a few blocks west of Old Colorado City, lamented the impact of the proposals. “I'd like to see the Westside stay the Westside,” she said.
       Dave Leinweber, owner of the Angler's Covey fly-fishing store (built this year at the northeast corner of 21st Street and Highway 24), suggested a combination of freeway and expressway. “If we don't slow traffic, all that money is going to drive past Colorado Springs,” he said. Leinweber is also aware that his store is at risk in the event of an interchange or a broadened intersection, but said he is prepared to have the state buy him out, if it comes to that.
       Willard added that, because he is an affected property owner - Gold Hill Mesa borders the highway from 21st to about 14th Street - CDOT has shown him potential intersection solutions that were not displayed at the meeting. One of these is a “tight diamond” style that might appeal to citizens because it would have less impact on existing buildings than the plans that are currently on the table.
       “I'm not so sure, from a strategy standpoint, that they (CDOT) haven't done this before,” Willard said. “They anticipate public outrage, and at the end they have one idea that's boring and traditional.”
       Asked about this afterward, Vobejda said there was no intent to keep information secret, but that as a courtesy CDOT officials show property owners their situation in detail before presenting it to the general citizenry. Basically, she said, what owners are seeing is a variety of intersection/interchange alternatives that will be refined for presentation to the public at the next meeting. “We just don't want to get too far ahead,” she said.
       Another open house is tentatively slated for January or February, with two or three more after that, according to Vobejda. Original plans had suggested a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) would be developed for the project by early 2006; plans now call for late 2006 or early 2007, Vobejda said.

Westside Pioneer article