Colo. backs off I-70 plans; options beside widening are on table |

Colo. backs off I-70 plans; options beside widening are on table

DENVER ” Facing opposition from mountain towns, the state Transportation Department is backing off plans to simply widen Interstate 70 to ease congestion and will reconsider options it had previously set aside.

Transportation chief Russ George said Thursday it doesn’t make sense to move ahead with an approach opposed by people who live along the I-70 corridor. Many of them have asked that mass transit to be included in the plan, but state officials had considered that too expensive.

I-70 is the state’s main east-west route through the mountains and is often jammed with traffic, especially on weekends during ski season. Except for some passing lanes on steep mountain grades, it has only two lanes in each direction over much of its distance through the Rockies.

George, a Republican and former House speaker, was appointed to the transportation job by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. George said Ritter told him to consult with mountain residents and officials who complained of being excluded from previous studies and to focus on speeding up projects that have stalled.

“When I got here, it was clear that as decisions were being made, we left our friends and constituents out along the way,” George said. “We shut them out too soon, and they didn’t like it and it probably wasn’t right. It gave the appearance the decision was preordained.”

A $25 million study during Gov. Bill Owens’ administration focused mainly on widening I-70 to three lanes in each direction. The department proposed setting aside space for a future, undetermined transit system, believing that it would be too expensive to be covered by the $4 billion funding cap set by George’s predecessor, Tom Norton.

George said he is scrapping that cap and will listen to all previously considered proposals at meetings beginning this summer. He said he hopes to reach a decision by the end of the year.

“If my friends in the corridor are happy with me, maybe they will help me find the money to do something up there,” he said.

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