Highway injustice in Denver’s Latino neighborhoods

Josh Zaffos
High Country News
A rendition of the highway cover alternative for I-70 that would add a new park space near Swansea Elementary School.
Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation |

Armando Payán’s family moved from California to northeast Denver in 1963, when his dad took a job in a meatpacking plant. Their arrival preceded a new wave of Hispanic immigrants, who now constitute the majority in the Globeville, Swansea and Elysia Elyria neighborhoods along the city’s rail yards. Local incomes and education levels trail the rest of Denver, and there’s no supermarket, bank branch or health clinic.

“This is an area of the city that has been neglected for 100 years,” says Payán, a state government employee.

One September evening, Payán and other members of the community group Unite North Metro Denver met at an elementary school to discuss a looming concern: freeways. The elevated junction of Interstates 25 and 70, known as the Mousetrap, is just down the street. This stretch of I-70 East, one of the most congested highways in Colorado, badly needs repairs or replacement. But the six-lane highway also cuts off through-traffic on many local roads, blocking access to other parts of the city, and its air pollution contributes to some of Denver’s highest rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease.

Now, residents fear that plans to replace it with a larger, partially below-ground highway could just exacerbate their problems. What’s more, they claim planners are ignoring a cheaper, community-friendly alternative.

Urban freeways are “a simple, but significant, design flaw” in American transportation planning, according to Peter Park, Denver’s former planning director and a University of Colorado Denver urban planning professor. When President Dwight Eisenhower created the interstate system in 1956, he envisioned freeways ringing cities, since even then, planners recognized that urban highways would isolate city neighborhoods and increase congestion, as cars must slow down to enter and exit during rush hours. But they also realized that access to downtowns would help justify new roads and construction taxes.

Highways were often routed through poor neighborhoods. Recently, community activists have responded by opposing expansions. For instance, plans that were made in the late 1990s to widen Interstate 5 between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, would have increased pollution and razed houses in low-income black Portland communities. Jeri Jimenez, then head of Portland’s Environmental Justice Action Group, says opponents forced planners to acknowledge concerns about local asthma rates, which were twice the national average. In 2013, following lawsuits, cost overruns and delays, Washington lawmakers halted the project. Traffic has since steadied.

Still, many interstates clearly need work, including the Mousetrap. Between 47,000 and 205,000 vehicles drive I-70 eastbound from it daily, but 285,000 are expected by 2035. Bridges and drainage structures are showing critical signs of wear.

After 12 years of studies, state and federal officials announced this August that their preferred option is to lower the freeway and add four toll lanes to reduce rush-hour congestion. The $1.17 billion project would include a four-acre, grassy “highway cover” that would double as an urban park.

Fifty-five homes and 17 businesses will have to be removed, but Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Rebecca White says the project would compensate displaced residents, pay for renovations at Swansea Elementary School next to the covered section and could include affordable housing and money to attract a local grocery. An air-quality analysis, she adds, concluded that the project would decrease pollution by alleviating traffic. A final environmental impact statement is due in January.

Opponents aren’t convinced. Measurements of harmful nitrogen oxides and smaller particulates, such as soot from diesel trucks, were not “specifically modeled or reported,” notes Bob Yuhnke, a former Environmental Defense Fund lawyer and air-pollution control expert. Based on his own review, he expects those pollutants to exceed national air-quality standards if the renovation occurs.

Residents would rather see the highway realigned with other nearby interstates, and a city street converted into a wider pedestrian- and bike-friendly boulevard to handle local traffic. That would likely cost half as much and get I-70 out of the neighborhoods. Denver would then join the highways-to-boulevards movement, which has successfully removed San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Central elevated freeways, rejuvenating the city’s waterfront without worsening congestion.

But White says that I-70, which connects the airport to ski resorts, isn’t a good candidate for removal. Planners considered rerouting it, but concluded that would clog local streets.

“A lot of cities — St. Louis, Dallas, San Diego — are doing exactly what we’re doing — adding covers,” White says. “The ones we’ve seen have really become park and community spaces.”

If partially covered highways have become popular fixes, that’s because funding mechanisms don’t support removals, says Park. A 2013 report he authored for the Congress for the New Urbanism highlighted a serious problem: Federal highway funding cannot be readily used for local greenbelts or boulevards.

“I don’t know of any neighborhood that became more valuable or desirable because of a bigger highway,” Park says. “But every single neighborhood that I know of that’s adjacent to a former freeway that was taken out got better.”

At the September meeting in the school cafeteria, where there was no air conditioning, residents sweated as they considered a lawsuit.

“This is a neighborhood being exploited,” Payán said. “We’re just asking to be treated fair.”

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