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State OKs $250 million for widening I-25 if federal grant comes through

October 19, 2017 Updated: October 20, 2017 at 2:31 pm
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Southbound traffic begins to build on Interstate 25 Thursday afternoon, Oct. 12, 2017, just before exit 172 near Larkspur, Colo. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

The state will kick in about 70 percent of the $350 million needed to widen Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock if the project succeeds in getting a highly competitive federal grant.

The Colorado Transportation Commission on Thursday voted unanimously, with one member absent, to pass a resolution that would tentatively designate about $250 million for the widening. Most of the money would come from a new state law, previously known as Senate Bill 267, which is expected to provide about $1.8 billion for transportation through the sale of state-owned buildings.

The $250 million - along with $65 million the grant might provide, plus $35 million in local funding - would cover the estimated construction costs.

El Paso County will apply for the grant, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, program. The deadline is Nov. 2, and awards are expected to be announced in the spring.

If the project doesn't get the grant, the commission will revisit the state's allocation to determine if all or some of the money would still go toward the widening.

While local and state pledges often give federal grant applicants an edge, winning the INFRA funds will still be a tremendous challenge. Ron Papsdorf, CDOT's federal affairs liaison, pegs the success rate of applications at about 8 percent. In fact, he said, CDOT has a saying: It's easier to get into Harvard than to secure a grant from a federal transportation program.

INFRA, which is essentially the Trump Administration's rebranding of the Obama-era FASTLANE grant program, is expected to make about $1.5 billion available to infrastructure projects across the country. The I-25 expansion will likely be vying against hundreds of other applicants, Papsdorf said.

"We're hopeful," CDOT Deputy Executive Director Michael Lewis said after the meeting. "We think we have very good projects that meet the goals of these programs. But we are in competition with all other states across the country, all other municipalities, all other counties."

The widening of the roughly 17-mile "Gap" between Monument and Castle Rock from two lanes in each direction to three was originally expected to cost $290 million to $570 million, although state transportation officials have narrowed the estimate to about $350 million. CDOT is proposing adding one new toll lane in each direction from Monument to Plum Creek Parkway, similar to the express lanes on U.S. 36 from Denver to Boulder. Transportation officials have not provided any information about what the toll rates would be.

If EL Paso County's INFRA grant application fails, the project could still be a candidate for SB267 funds, said Transportation Commissioner Rocky Scott, whose district includes the county.

"There is no doubt, either within the commission or the staff, that the Gap project is a very high priority project," he said, adding: "That's not to say there's not a lot of other high-priority projects."

In the past, Colorado has been successful in procuring federal funds for major infrastructure projects: A $15 million grant from U.S. DOT's Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program, will help pay for the roughly $230 million widening of Interstate 25 from Fort Collins to Johnstown. In August, La Plata County was awarded a roughly $12.3 million grant from the FASTLANE program for an interchange connecting U.S. 550 and U.S. 160 in Durango.

Under the current proposal, construction would begin by mid-2019 and end in 2021, said CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford.

El Paso and Douglas counties and a regional transportation tax fund are the most likely sources of local money for the project. A question on the Nov. 7 ballot will ask voters' permission to set aside about $10 million in Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales tax collections for the project. Another measure would allow El Paso County to retain about $14.5 million in excess revenue, including at least $6 million that would be reserved for the widening. El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller, one of the project's most vocal proponents, is pushing for the county to put about $9 million more toward the project through its regular budgeting process over the next two years.

Douglas County officials have proposed allocating another $10 million to the project in the coming years, but the plan has not yet been approved by commissioners and would depend on the availability of future funds, according to a spokeswoman for the county. The provision was included in a preliminary budget document that was presented to Douglas County commissioners last week.

The resolution transportation commissioners OK'd on Thursday included plans for about $530 million of the roughly $880 million that SB267 is expected to generate in its first two years. In addition to the "Gap" project, $200 million was allotted to the expansion of I-25 north from Colorado 402 in Loveland to Colorado 56, north of Longmont, from two to three lanes in each direction. About $80 million was also set aside to help pay for the construction of "peak period" shoulder lanes on westbound Interstate 70 from Twin Tunnels to Empire Junction. Both projects are also vying for INFRA grants.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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