Few funds for Interstate 70 fixes despite last-minute legislative compromise
May 10, 2017
On Wednesday, May 10, the last day of Colorado's legislative session, lawmakers passed a compromise bill that, among other provisions, applies a $1.8 billion Band-Aid over 10 years to the Colorado Department of Transportation's $9 billion backlog of road projects. The bill, SB 267, earmarks 25 percent — or $450 million —for rural counties, including Summit. That's better than nothing but falls well short of the $3.5 billion that would have been generated by a bargain between the Democratic House and Republican Senate that died in late April.
That left CDOT officials with the unenviable task of telling local governments that funding for a host of projects the agency considers "critical needs" still doesn't exist.
"We were all cooked up and ready to go," CDOT regional transportation director Dave Eller told Summit County commissioners during a meeting last week. "We're kind of hopeful, but I was really disappointed with this last one. It was probably the closest we've been to actually seeing something for transportation in a long time."
The eleventh-hour compromise at the Legislature was welcome, but nonetheless fell short for the broad range of groups who had been pushing hard for a comprehensive funding package this session.
"On the one hand we're saying, 'OK, thank you for that,'" said Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition. "But it does not get us anywhere near where we need to be — CDOT says they need $9 billion."
The biggest potential project on the mountain corridor, which would aim to ease westbound congestion toward the Eisenhower Tunnel, is alone estimated to cost $300 million.
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Bowes said that her organization — which advocates for improvements along the I-70 mountain corridor — is now in talks with other stakeholder groups to chart a new course.
One of the main questions now, she said, is whether or not to introduce a citizen's initiative on the ballot this November or wait until 2018, when turnout might be higher.
Smaller projects in Summit will also stay on ice unless CDOT is able to find more money. One of those would be an overhaul of the I-70 Exit 203 interchange in Frisco, where new development has started to cause potentially dangerous backups on the interstate.
CDOT estimates that project could cost around $20 million and take eight years to complete. But there currently isn't even funding for a traffic study, which is a necessary first step before the design phase can even begin.
That carries immediate implications for the nascent Lake Hill workforce-housing development, which could add thousands of residents near the intersection of Highway 9, Dillon Dam Road and the I-70 interchange.
The county government and town of Frisco are eager to get that project going but are wary of going forward without first understanding how to ease potential traffic impacts.
"In terms of all the development applications coming into Frisco and the partnership we hope to have on workforce housing, we can't wait for $20 million to fall from the sky before we do anything," said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson.
The intersection between Rasor Drive and Highway 6 — already plagued by traffic problems — is another unfunded priority that officials say shouldn't proceed without a study into possible solutions. There isn't currently money for that, either.
"The biggest challenge we have right now is finding dollars to even start a study," Eller said.
There is some silver lining, however, in projects that have already secured funding. The biggest prize there is the "Gap Three" project, which would widen the stretch of Highway 9 between the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and Frisco.
Funding is also secured for resurfacing work on Highway 6 in Dillon, currently in progress, and a similar project for next summer on the potholed stretch of Summit Boulevard between Frisco's Main Street and I-70.
"The pavement is really hammered on both of those, so it's really great for all of us to get some repaving jobs on them," said county public works director Tom Gosiorowski. "You see some people doing some weird stuff right now trying to miss potholes, and to get all of that craziness out of the traffic stream will be good."
Those smaller projects undoubtedly improve the driving experience, particularly for the locals who commute on those roads daily.
But taking a wider view, there is consensus among CDOT officials, stakeholder groups and even lawmakers that without a dedicated source of transportation funding, more ambitious projects simply won't get done.
"It stifles economic development and hurts the economy of Colorado the longer this goes on," Eller said. "If we don't have a good transportation system, people aren't going to want to come here."
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