28 January 2015: CDOT still stuck in ‘pave it’ mentality

CDOT still stuck in ‘pave it’ mentality

In last week’s column I explored the scope of the I-70 corridor problem, holding that the rubber has met the road both metaphorically and literally in Clear Creek and we’re at a crossroads.  CDOT’s plan is simple: widening and laying asphalt; ours is to maintain and assure a vibrant, healthy, and sustainable community.

I concluded with wondering whether Clear Creek remains a full-fledged partner in the decision-making process.

When I posed that to Commissioner Tim Mauck, he said he disagrees to a point.

“Part of the Record of Decision (ROD) was this revolutionary concept called Context Sensitive Design (CSS).  The Tunnels were part of CSS and worked fantastically.

“We were part of the design from the ground up, and the design project won a national award and is becoming common place all over.  After a slow start, the eastbound Peak Period Shoulder Lane was otherwise another good CSS project.”

The problem, Mauck holds, has been in the implementation and construction phase, calling it “dismal.”

“CSS is supposed to continue through construction and it had/has not in this phase.  Also, because CSS is essentially a new concept, we all to a degree continue to work through it and be reminded when we veer from the process.”

Mauck’s observation and analysis reminds me of a simple truism of life: You can’t do one thing.  Anyone who has remodeled an older home or done major landscaping knows that once one starts peeling away and ripping out the old, unanticipated problems are invariably going to surface.

Another problem is CDOT earth-shakers and movers live in flat, spacious Denver and truly can’t grasp how different the mountain corridor is from their turf, due not only to its natural configuration and elevation but also its mining past.  To them it’s intellectual theory; to us it is self-evident because we experience it every day.  In short, CDOT counts numbers; we daily observe human behavior in context of oftentimes harsh conditions.

To be sure, for the longest time there was a spirit of cooperation and deliberation among our western neighbors, state officials and Clear Creek about the long-term future of the I-70 corridor.  Problem-solving leaders of the past include Russell George, CDOT director in Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration, Summit County commissioners Bill Wallace and Bob French, Dillon mayor Flo Raitano, and Peter Ruby, Eagle County commissioner.

With the shift in politics and focus away from a “we’re in in this together” approach to the current “it’s all about me” by Summit/Eagle/Vail, the corridor’s plight has entered a new era.

In Denver, outgoing CDOT director Don Hunt made concrete CDOT’s job one as transportation is road building and widening.  He gave a little nod to bike lanes and disdained rail.

In a conversation with the Denver Post’s Vincent Carroll, Hunt spoke directly about the ongoing incremental steps of CDOT’s I-70 widening efforts through Clear Creek.

“We’re adding 2 feet of pavement essentially in order to open up that interior shoulder to traffic on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and charge a toll for it.”

A two-foot widening doesn’t seem like much but it comes at the cost of the emergency shoulder lane and bike access from Fall River Rd. to Idaho Springs in those periods.

With regard to the Advanced Guideway System, Hunt was resolutely dismissive.

“We’ve pretty much said that until Colorado grows quite a bit more or can afford more investment—or the federal government gets back into high-speed rail, which is unlikely—we can’t afford it.  It’s $12 billion to $20 billion.  We just don’t have that kind of capital, not even close.”

His soon-to-be replacement Shailen Bhatt seems to speak the preferred lingo but in the end falls into the same “the answer lies in asphalt” trap.

“Widening roads all the time is just a 20th-century mindset,” he said. “You have to be open to new and smarter ways to use dollars.”

Strangely though, the 39-year-old Bhatt points to the new to-be-tolled asphalt lane on a widened I-70 as “new and smarter” and an example of CDOT’s “willingness to consider travel alternates.”

“That’s telling me that CDOT is open to innovations and that’s one reason the agency was so attractive to me.”

Innovative?  Perhaps Bhatt needs a refresher course in transportation history.  On October 1, 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first American limited-access toll road, opened for business.  Since then regressively taxed—tolled—roads and lanes have been a staple of American highways.

Next week: Is there hope?  After all, he’s our governor too.

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