At the Crossroads of Colorado’s Highway Transportation

I-70 Reimagined

We’ve reached an important crossroads regarding the future of Colorado highway transportation. Diverging paths lead to different destinations.

Our elected leaders urge widening I-70, creating a huge traffic canyon gouged into the low-income North Denver ethnic minority communities of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea. To protect this planned 40-foot-deep, the 23-lane-equivalent section of I-70 from flooding, CDOT has paid the city of Denver millions for the ‘Platte-to-Park Hill’ drainage project.

The project would repurpose historic City Park Golf Course as a drainage sump; dig a deep, wide concrete-lined culvert through the middle of the historic (low-income, minority) Cole neighborhood; and dump all the accumulated, polluted runoff through a massively expanded stormwater outfall at Globeville Landing into the Platte River, wiping out the neighborhood’s only riverside park.

The project creates new catastrophic flooding potential in the Globeville neighborhood. Denver is now excavating a highly toxic Superfund site just upstream from where Adams County draws some drinking water. Flooding could wash lead, arsenic, and cadmium from the highly toxic site into the Platte River.

Perhaps the most serious health risks come not from below, but from above. In the mid-20th century, Denver and CDOT built urban freeways through the heart of low-income ethnic minority inner city neighborhoods instead of routing them around city peripheries, as intended in the original Federal Highway Act. In transportation policy circles, this is referred to as following the geographic course of political least resistance.

This is exactly what happened in North Denver. The environmental health effects have been devastating. For the last half-century, these neighborhoods have suffered the worst urban air pollution in the country. As assessed by Denver’s own Department of Environmental Health, childhood asthma rates are 40% above all other Denver neighborhoods, and rates of congestive heart disease are 70% higher. Both life-shortening pathologies are directly linked to highway traffic exhaust. Now Denver and CDOT plan to make conditions worse by doubling the volume of I-70 traffic through these neighborhoods.

Beyond the extensive environmental damage and human health harm, this proposed path also raises serious questions of regional and fiscal equity throughout the state of Colorado. Half of the funding CDOT has set aside for bridge maintenance and repair throughout our state’s compromised rural highway infrastructure is now slated for Central 70.

Further—even with the federal highway construction funds promised if the I-70 project is not found to be in violation of the federal Clean Air Act—CDOT doesn’t have enough funding to complete the project. Colorado taxpayers may soon be asked to pay for all the long-overdue highway improvement projects on CDOT’s wish list.

The list will have many projects around the state that deserve public support; however, Central 70 is not deserving. Former Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher calls it a “billion-dollar boondoggle.” CDOT could achieve the same regional surface transportation objectives with far less funding, far less environmental damage, and far less harm to the health of nearby residents if it simply chose the beltway bypass expansion option: I-76/I-270. CDOT already owns the right-of-way, far fewer people would be displaced, and there’d be far less environmental health harm. Denver could remove the I-70 viaduct and replace it with a beautiful parkway.

Many governments have recognized as gross environmental injustices 1960s-era urban freeways; they’re ripping them out and healing the afflicted neighborhoods. That is what we propose to do here. We should heal social and architectural wounds as has been done in San Francisco, Seattle, and many other cities globally.

The rest of Colorado shouldn’t have to pay for the billion-dollar boondoggle, and North Denver residents shouldn’t have to continue to breathe the country’s most toxic air. Surface transportation should promote greener, healthier neighborhoods, and should more fairly and cost-effectively expend precious public funds.

Lloyd Burton recently retired as Professor and Founding Director of the program concentration in Environmental Policy, Management, and Law at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado – Denver. He is a member of EPA’s Citizens’ Advisory Group regarding the Superfund risks written about in this piece and serves on the Transportation Committee of the Colorado Sierra Club.

With contributions by Joe Boven On January 19 The Federal Highway Administration approved the Central 70 project. The Record of Decision allows the Colorado Department of Transportation to begin construction of the new highway in 2018. Many activists and concerned citizens are on a quest for justice with plans to sue CDOT, the EPA and … Continue reading

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