I-25 WIDENING CASTLE ROCK
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Widening the "Gap" Where: I-25 When: (Maybe, hopefully) 2018 Commuters have something to be excited about next year: Construction might begin on the long-awaited widening of the Interstate 25 "Gap" from Monument to Castle Rock - if the funding that's been identified for the project is secured. Under the Colorado Department of Transportation's current proposal, a pair of toll lanes would be added to each side of the roughly 18-mile stretch, widening it from two to three lanes in each direction. The roughly $350 million widening would be paid for by a mix of local, state, and federal sources, including a $65 million grant that officials won't hear back about until spring. Local governments are also working to come up with about $7.5 million more for the project. Already, Douglas County is expected to contribute $10 million, El Paso County $7.5 million, and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority $10 million. Roughly $250 million would come from a new state law that's expected to generate revenue through the sale of state-owned buildings. If construction begins in late 2018, the project would be finished by summer 2021, according to CDOT.

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The 50 people at Lewis-Palmer High School on Saturday were nearly unanimous on the Interstate 25 "Gap" project: no tolls.

The meeting was the first of its kind held by El Paso County commissioners. Colorado Department of Transportation had held eight in the past month for residents with questions, concerns or suggestions about the $350 million project to widen the Interstate 25 "Gap" from Monument to Castle Rock from two to three lanes in each direction.

CDOT's current plan - and one of the main points of contention at Saturday's meeting - is to charge drivers a toll for using the third express lane rather than keep all three lanes free.

"CDOT is presenting us a solution rather than options, and I don't know if our comments or desires are being considered," said El Paso County resident Dean Montel. "In the end, two congested lanes with an express lane only used by 10 percent of drivers means less safety to me."

Ann Howe, who is running to succeed Darryl Glenn as District 1 commissioner next year, described the state of frustration of citizens as at the "pitchfork stage," a reference to the angry mob armed with pitchforks in the film "Frankenstein."

"People are tired of being told what we want and what is good for them, which CDOT believes is tolls," she said. "At every listening meeting I've gone to, no one wants tolls."

CDOT has implemented express lanes on highways and interstates, which Executive Director Michael Lewis said have reduced travel time, increased safety and generated money the state can use for road maintenance.

Traffic flow is on average 29 percent faster on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder, for example, since the state put in the express lane in 2015.

However, some pointed out that doesn't accurately portray longer drive times and congestion in the free lanes.

"The density will move from the toll lane to the general lanes, so does that mean we're increasing safety and speed only for the express lane and decreasing it for the other lanes?" county Commissioner Stan VanderWerf asked. "We need CDOT to provide us with that information."

Lewis said it is unclear whether the inclusion of an express lane will make CDOT's application for a $65 million federal grant more competitive, which he said is "as hard as getting ... into Harvard," though necessary to supplement the $35 million in local tax dollars and $250 million in state allocations budgeted for the project.

"The (Trump) administration has expressed an interest in funding innovative solutions, and, though no one is in the heads of the Department of Transportation, we believe the express lane is innovative and can help our application," he said.

Commissioner Mark Waller was more confident.

"In a nutshell, the answer is yes," he said, explaining later that his answer was about a four-lane highway in each direction with three free lanes and a fourth toll lane.

Many people echoed his preference for a four-lane highway, but without a toll lane, saying that would avoid yet another round of securing funding, costly and lengthy environmental assessments required under the National Environmental Policy Act and construction delays.

"This project needed to be done 10 or 15 years ago," said Ed McGraw, who has lived in Colorado Springs for 29 years. "Now we're going to spend $350 million to revisit the project in 15 years. CDOT is being shortsighted in that decision."

The extra lane would add $150 million to the cost, Lewis said, which the state doesn't have.

"There are over $6 billion worth of priority projects in the state, the "Gap" included. Relative to the other needs across the state, four lanes is not needed now," he said. "Likely they will be in the future, probably 20 to 25 years."

CDOT plans to ensure all the bridges on the interstate are widened enough during this phase of construction to eventually fit a fourth lane.

Toward the end of the meeting, citizens and commissioners began to point the finger at the state Legislature.

"This is the top transportation project for the state, but there has been a failure by the leaders in Colorado to prioritize spending on roads," said county Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez. "We need to ask our governor and state Legislature why they can't put in another $100 million in the budget for much-needed transportation projects because this needs to get done."

The next public meeting on the I-25 widening project is expected to be held in March. A recording of Saturday's meeting will be available on the county website at www.elpasoco.com.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say that Saturday's meeting was held by El Paso County commissioners, not Colorado Department of Transportation.

Liz Forster is a general assignment reporter with a focus on environment and public safety. She is a Colorado College graduate, avid hiker and skier, and sweet potato enthusiast.