No one enjoys driving through The Gap, the congested 18-mile stretch of Interstate 25 between Castle Rock and Monument. It's been a driver's nightmare for years, including the past three years during construction of new lanes. 

But let the champagne bottles be uncorked. The $419 million project is opening almost a year ahead of schedule.

Gov. Jared Polis, joined by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, Douglas County commissioners, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, and officials from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Kraemer North America construction on Monday unveiled an early holiday gift for travelers: Two of the three lanes through the 18-mile section are now open, with wider shoulders and four underpasses designed to keep wildlife off the highway. By mid-December, the last section, the express toll lane, will be fully open. An exact date for the express lane opening is expected at the end of this month.

Here's another early gift for drivers: The express lane will be free until late in 2022, Polis said Monday.

 

"This is the gift of time and the gift of safety," the governor said. Officials noted that the wider highway and other improvements will be safer not just for motorists, but for Colorado State Patrol and other members of law enforcement.

 

During the past five years, two state troopers — Cody Donahue and Jaimie Jursevics  — died during routine traffic stops in The Gap's Douglas County portion. Indeed, the highway has seen its share of accidents between vehicles and wildlife, too. The newly completed highway has four wildlife underpasses, which will reduce the incidents of wildlife running into the highway, officials said. 

Officials lauded the collaborative efforts that led to the project being completed ahead of schedule and under budget. That collaboration resulted in $25 million from El Paso County, $10 million from Douglas County, $10 million from a voter-approved ballot measure through the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority and a $65 million federal grant that had the support of the entire Colorado delegation in 2018. The biggest source of funding was $250 million from the Colorado Transportation Commission. The project's expected cost is $419 million, which increased from $350 million when additional funding came in through SB 17-267 and which allowed the project to add several new bridges, as well as the wildlife underpasses.

Suthers was part of the bipartisan and collaborative effort among the state, CDOT, the federal government, local counties and contractors to complete the project ahead of schedule.

"We have two of the 40 largest cities in America, separated by 70 miles," Suthers told Colorado Politics. "Given how dependent we are on tourism and military infrastructure that has to use the highways ... it was just an unacceptable situation." 

Suthers said that, in 2016, CDOT estimated the project would take 10 years. "We have to do this quicker," Suthers said he relayed to then-CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt.

"Here we are, in less than six years" from start to finish, he said, adding, "it was a real collaborative effort." 

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, was also on hand for the announcement, and cheered the addition of an extra lane on the hilly approach to his community. That climbing lane expands the highway in that section to four lanes instead of three.

"It was real smart, the way we were able to put this project together. The approach into Monument has always been a pinch point," Lundeen told Colorado Politics. "Smart things like that have gone into the scope of this project."

The project got underway while Hickenlooper was governor, and groundbreaking took place in September 2018. He told Colorado Politics he did not expect the project to be finished a year early.

"So often, these projects, when you get into construction, unless the planning is done really well, there's all these unexpected bottlenecks. We did most of the studies and planning" ahead of time, he said, adding four years would be a pretty good timetable for completion, as well.

"What's not to love about that?" he said of the project's early completion.

Bennet talked of the economic benefit of the project. Collaboration at the local level made it possible and easier to do the work, he said, adding, "This is a model for the rest of the country."

With $4 billion headed to Colorado for roads and bridges, wastewater treatment and broadband, through the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last week, Bennet said "no state is readier to participate in this investment than Colorado." 

"I'm just delighted that this has come in the way it has. It establishes Colorado as a real leader in implementation of funds," Bennet later told Colorado Politics.

CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew explained some of the "how" on why the project finished early. It was largely due to the collaboration with the contractor, Kraemer North America, she said. CDOT Chief Engineer Steve Harelson cited one change, an innovative method of paving the highway that saved $10 million on the paving phases.

Another money-saving innovation, which also came through collaboration early on with Kraemer, changed the height of the concrete barriers that divided the highway, officials said. 

Lew explained that many of the savings resulted from bringing in the contractor during the design phase, as well as constant communication. Finishing the project almost a year early will also result in savings, Lew said.

Also joining Monday's announcement was Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, who told Colorado Politics that the $10 million from her county came from realigning of budgets, a 2021 voter-approved ballot measure and without raising taxes.

The project was personal to Thomas. She's a former state trooper who, in 1987, arrested a hit-and-run driver who killed another state trooper, Charlie Fry, in an auto-pedestrian accident that took place at the top of Monument Hill.

"This was personal. There's a great deal of satisfaction," she said.

What's left in the next month are landscaping, testing the toll mechanisms and other auxiliary work that isn't part of the highway itself.

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