CDOT seeks ‘guidance’ on 3 unresolved Hwy 24 issues

       Closing in on a “preferred alternative” for a Westside Highway 24 expansion, state road planners have zeroed in on three remaining unresolved design issues. Meetings of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and its consultants with the more political of their two “Envision 24 West” advisory committees began this week, with the goal of finalizing the alternative for public review early in 2008, according to Dave Watt, the CDOT resident engineer.
       The three issues are what to do about 15th and Broadway streets, how to align the highway west of 31st Street, and whether to have Ridge Road be an overpass or intersection. “We're at a point where we really need guidance,” said Mary Jo Vobejda, the lead project consultant, at the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) meeting Nov. 27.
       No firm conclusions were reached at the meeting - which focused primarily on 15th Street - but the planning team heard some hard questions from Michael Davies of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Representing the agency that would be providing nearly all of the project's funding, he was concerned about its overall cost estimate - which has not changed for about two years - and whether federal funding would be justifiable for the CDOT option showing an overpass with two ramps at 15th Street.
       The options had been developed previously with the help of the project's Technical Leadership Team (TLT), which, based on activities during the now-three-year planning effort, looks at plans more from a functional than a fundability standpoint. Once the ELT review is finished and direction is clear, the TLT will be called back in to help detail any design changes, Vobejda explained.
       Absent from the meeting were two of the three elected officials who make up part of the group (other than Manitou Springs Mayor-elect Eric Drummond). Those present were chiefly CDOT's group and local government staff members, including Regional CDOT Director Tim Harris, City Public Works Director Ron Mitchell and City Planning Director Bill Healy. County Commissioner and Westside leader Sallie Clark said she was unable to attend because of a prior commitment at a Colorado Counties meeting involving Gov. Bill Ritter. Heimlicher had said he was coming, according to Vobejda, but did not appear.
       “I don't think it's right to have an ELT meeting when elected officials can't come,” said Clark, who had organized a series of Highway 24 working group meetings specifically for elected officials last year and for whom the proposed 15th Street interchange is a key Westside issue. “I had e-mailed her [Vobejda] about this a month and a half ago [telling her she couldn't come] and she never responded.”
       In response, Vobejda said it is impossible to schedule a meeting that 100 percent of the team members can fit into their schedules and that Nov. 27 had worked out for most of them.
       Clark's stated goal has consistently been to reduce the impact of the project, and another of her issues has been the size of the 21st Street interchange. She has asked the Envision team to come up with a non-standard design for the envisioned 21st Street interchange - with 21st Street going over (instead of the highway), and designing it steeper to reduce its footprint at the intersection. Her request is not that unusual, she said, noting that the city has a number of non-standard traffic configurations that were waivered to meet special circumstances. But she has not gotten a response on this either, she told the Westside Pioneer this week.
       Asked about this request, Vobejda said the CDOT team has been looking into the idea and intends to develop the option to present at some point to City Transportation Planning. But research so far has shown that only one property would be saved as a result - Perkins Auto Body at Sheldon and 21st Street. South of the highway, even a shorter, steeper bridge would not prevent the need for Bott to become a deadend street, she added.
       ELT meeting dates for the two other design issues (Ridge Road and the west-of-31st alignment) were set after considerable juggling of busy calendars by officials at the end of the Nov. 27 meeting. These will be Dec. 20 at 9 a.m. (Ridge Road issue) and Jan. 10 at 1:30 p.m. (west of 31st issue) at CDOT's Cheyenne Mountain Complex, 1480 Quail Lake Loop. As high-level planning meetings, they are not advertised to the general public, but neither are they private.
       At Ridge Road, the issue is whether there should be a no-access overpass (improving traffic flow and requiring only two lanes each way) or an at-grade intersection with a stoplight, allowing the same access as today.
       The west-of-31st question deals with how to fit a widened highway in between steep rock walls next to Red Rock Canyon Open Space and Fountain Creek, Vobejda said.
       Regarding overall project costs, Davies of the FHWA urged a “cost validation” meeting “as soon as possible.” The estimates are $240 million to widen the highway (including Fountain Creek flood control and full interchanges at 8th and 21st streets), plus $30 million to buy up the needed right of way, Vobejda told the group. However, those numbers are now close to two years old, and according to Vobejda, set in “current dollars.” But with the increase in oil costs in the past year, inflation has become a factor in all construction projects, and she and others connected with the project planning have previously predicted that no Westside Highway 24 work is likely to get underway until at least 2012.
       As for 15th Street, Davies did not appear impressed with an option showing an overpass with a westbound off-ramp and eastbound on-ramp. The option has two key purposes, as presented by planners. These are to provide:
      
  • An access for future Gold Hill Mesa residents going to and from the downtown (for example), to avoid adding to the traffic at 21st Street.
          
  • A low-key north-south route for local motorists to cross the highway.
           Davies' points were that the number of trips taken from 21st Street is relatively small; plus, an overpass with ramps would impact Fountain Creek and probably require approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and even the Environmental Protection Agency. He suggested CDOT put some focus on using a proposed quasi- frontage connection between 21st and Broadway and 8th and Garner streets as an outlet for Gold Hill.
           Lack of federal funding would not necessarily mean no bridge or ramps would be built at 15th. Gold Hill Mesa developer Bob Willard has previously offered to pay for an overpass to help obtain additional highway access for his subdivision, and City Planning Director Bill Healy said the city wants the north-south connection as part of helping Gold Hill become successful.
           Residents on 15th Street have previously expressed opposition to what they term a “cut-through” plan, in which their established neighborhood would be used for people motoring between Gold Hill south of the highway and Colorado Avenue north of it.
           In another comment earlier in the meeting, when Davies was asking about the overall need for the Westside Highway 24 widening project, Healy responded that the route is the only road to the mountains in a growing region. “Someday,” he said, “we will pass the Denver metro area in population.”

    Westside Pioneer article