By Ernest Gurulé
The end is near. Well, in this case, we are speaking of the end of Denver’s interminable Central I-70 Project. If everything proceeds on schedule, it will be complete in early 2023, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Begun in 2018, the massive and controversial $1.2 billion undertaking designed to bring the Denver Metro Area’s busiest eastwest artery into the 21st century is now in the homestretch, CDOT spokesperson Stacia Sellers said.
“We have just finished a major milestone,” Sellers said, referring to the switch of “westbound traffic between Brighton Boulevard and Colorado.”
Express lanes, which do not currently include a fee but will have one early next year, are now also operational. One of the biggest elements of the project took place last summer with the demolition of a 57-year-old viaduct between Brighton and Colorado Boulevards. It was replaced with “a below-grade highway.” Removing the structure also created the space for eastbound traffic between I-70 and 46th Avenue south.
While no highway project answers the needs of every daily commuter, the 10-mile stretch of I-70 between Brighton Boulevard and Chambers Road promises to deliver a far more efficient trip if the express lanes in each direction do their job.
The project also includes a plum for nearby residents whose lives may have been interrupted during the construction. There will be a four-acre covered park between Columbine and Clayton, atop the interstate, which is expected to open this fall, Sellers said. It will include two full-sized soccer fields to be used by students at nearby Swansea Elementary School.
The fields will be open to the public when school is not in session. There will also be an amphitheater, along with five water features and fountains where kids can play. The greenbelt will include a community center that can be rented out, new sidewalks along the Sand Creek Greenway trail, and new lighting “to make night walks safer,” Sellers said.
More than a hundred trees will also be planted as part of the project. The concept of the greenbelt, said Sellers, was a collaboration with “parents, teachers and students…and a way to bring everybody back.” With the project in its final stages, early community objections have died down. It could be a matter of attrition, or that many of the concerns have been addressed.
Sellers said that CDOT has worked hand in glove with community members to address issues at every stage of the project. Prior to the first backhoe carving up the roadway, objections to the project came fast and furious. Perhaps the biggest concern was the pollution that the heavy construction would create. Critics cited one Denver Environmental Health (DEH) study that said residents would experience 70% higher mortality rates from heart disease than other Denver neighborhoods not impacted by highway construction pollution.
Also, DEH said, children would be at a 40% greater risk for suffering asthma-related health issues than those in nonconstruction communities. There was also anger that local community members would be stuck with higher taxes to pay for storm water drainage improvements. Denver City Council voted 8-3 to approve the added costs with Councilmembers Rafael Espinoza, Kevin Flynn and Paul Kashman voting no.
Two council members were absent. Local opposition also accused Denver Mayor Michael Hancock of bulldozing the new road construction through for the benefit of his “pet project,” the National Western Complex. Other concerns were gentrification, forcing longtime residents out and opening the door for new housing and businesses.
Sellers said CDOT was more than sensitive to the concerns of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea residents. One thing CDOT did, in partnership with Northeast Transportation Connection, was provide a $100 annual transit credit for a toll transponder and bus passes to GES residents.
The credit is for the next 10 years. Sellers said eligibility was based on income and lack of transportation. “Since we’ve partnered,” she said, “we have given out over two thousand passes.”
There is no doubt that the metro area’s growth has dictated considerable attention be paid to the way people move, certainly east to west across the region. CDOT says that when the Central I-70 Project is complete, more than a million people will use the roadway each week.
Many will be traveling to DIA, currently ranked the third busiest airport in the world. They will also be interacting with businesses, both long-established as well as those that have popped up over the last several years. CDOT estimates that there are now more than 1,200 businesses along the route, a number that will certainly grow.
“Thank God it’s over,” said one FedEx driver making a delivery. “It’s so much better today but it was torture getting deliveries to the other side (south) of the interstate.”
The driver asked his name not be used. His delivery was on its way to the home of Archpriest David Thatcher. Father David, as he is often addressed by congregants, ministers to Globeville’s historic Holy Transfiguration of Christ Orthodox Cathedral.
Father David, a California transplant, said after coming from the Golden State he knows traffic all too well. But he stopped short of offering harsh criticism for any disruptions caused by the project, though there were a few. “It depended on where they were working,” he said of the inconveniences.
“We tried to have vespers outside during Covid.” But the construction noise, he said, would not allow it. Also, “If we had a mid-week service, it was very hard to get in because of the traffic patterns. We’re right here.” Father David also lamented the loss of homes and exodus of residents caused by the project.
“I don’t really know what happened to them.” Still, as the project winds down, he admits that he doesn’t understand why “our approach to public transportation doesn’t include more trains and things like that. It just seems like such a natural thing. It’s not nearly as complicated here as Southern California.”