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GUEST COLUMN: An update on the I-25 Gap project

By: Robert K. (Rocky) Scott
March 16, 2018 Updated: March 16, 2018 at 4:30 am
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There was a lot of email after my January column about plans for the I-25 "Gap." All comments were helpful in understanding preferences of individual citizens. I sent responses to all emails. Hopefully they were helpful. The comments show differences in philosophy and questions of fact. Some believe that CDOT isn't listening. Details below show almost a year of proactive CDOT listening but, for understandable reasons, there isn't always agreement, in this case regarding the use of a toll-managed lane that is optional for all drivers. Perspectives depend on understanding of CDOT's obligations, which are to develop a good understanding of the problem to be solved, to listen well locally (El Paso and Douglas counties), then to use limited funds, which come mostly from statewide and national taxpayers (about 90 percent of the total), to deliver a technically sound project that addresses individual local concerns as much as possible while also addressing the needs and expectations of statewide and federal approval authorities. They must also oversee changes to the state and national highway network of which the I-25 Gap is a small part. Those authorities must listen and respond to essential voices beyond El Paso County.

Regarding listening, beginning in the spring of 2017, CDOT held over 15 public and regular meetings with local news media and public officials including two telephone town halls involving thousands of listeners and callers. Monthly briefings to public officials and newspaper articles in June and October clearly explained the toll lane preference. I have learned a lot by participating in many of those events and reviewing all results. CDOT staff has prepared responses to frequently asked questions. Answers are being updated regularly and are available on the CDOT website.

In late December, I met with El Paso County commissioners. We had a constructive dialogue that led to the suggestion that additional public understanding could be created by the county also hosting informational meetings, with CDOT participating, to increase shared understanding of the reasons for the Gap strategy. The response has been positive.

So what is the bottom line today? Almost everyone agrees that another Gap lane in each direction is essential, as soon as possible, to address unacceptable, and growing, fatalities, injuries, property damage and disruption of personal lives and business operations.

CDOT's job is to provide the public with the best solution overall, considering many complex factors that are weighed against each other. Key decision factors include cost and available funding. As population and the use of roads grows and as years of wear and tear on infrastructure, highway funding needs continue to soar while funding sources change. There is now very limited funding available statewide for billions of dollars of unmet needs. Proposed funding sources for the project are not guaranteed. No state general fund money goes to highways. Real gas tax proceeds per vehicle have declined since 1992. Among other key trade-off factors and questions are: what design maximizes highway performance during high congestion conditions (note the gridlock in most of central Denver)? Which design choices maximize safety, including the ability of emergency vehicles to get to victims of accidents as quickly as possible? Our loved ones need the most rapid care possible if involved in an accident. And how do we maximize the ability of vehicles carrying multiple passengers to most efficiently move them (increasing the overall mobility benefit of the system)? This is a complex decision process. No single factor can override all others.

In 2012, taking all these factors into consideration, the Colorado Transportation Commission concluded that, where justifiable, toll-managed lanes will be preferred. The Gap is mostly likely one of those cases, information that has been shared with the public and with elected leaders at multiple different times before the November election.

Crucially, it is extremely important to recognize that funding for the Gap project is not guaranteed. CDOT's very rapid Gap construction schedule relies on assured funding. Only when it is available could construction start this fall and be completed in 2021.The funding depends on several federal, state and local sources. Approval of a federal INFRA grant this spring, a grant that is very difficult to get, is essential. The transportation commission has conditionally committed $250 million of state funds. Two counties, including El Paso County, have previously indicated plans to contribute to the total funding mix, following the example of local support for all other similar, tolled, projects around the state. Legislation now being considered in Denver also may play a part. We should note that Federal guidelines for the linchpin INFRA grants say changing the grant submission would undermine the competitive process in such a way that "is unfair to other applicants not afforded that opportunity."

I am personally concerned that, at the end of the day, if our region insists upon a project that doesn't meet the standards being applied successfully to everyone else, funding may not be available with the timing that addresses the urgency of the Gap problem. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

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Robert K. (Rocky) Scott is Colorado Transportation Commission commissioner for District 9 (El Paso, Teller, Fremont, Park counties).

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