Other Cities Look to Tear Down Their Old Highways, But Not Denver

Denver's plan for I-70 is to bury it, widen it and cap it. Image: I70east.com
Denver’s plan for I-70 is to widen it, bury it, and cap a small part of it. Photo: I70east.com

Denver has one of those golden opportunities that many American cities are seizing: An elevated highway that damaged neighborhoods is nearing the end of its life, giving the city an opening to repair the harm.

Unfortunately, as Tanya has reported, Denver seems poised to double down on highway building instead. The city is looking to bury and widen Interstate 70 through the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, then cap a small section. The $1.8 billion proposal would add four lanes to I-70 — two in each direction — for a total of 10 lanes.

This visualization shows how the highway would look widened and with a cap. Image: I70east.com
A look at the proposal to sink and widen I-70 and put an 800-foot-long park on it. Image: I70east.com

While Denver has been booming in general, the neighborhoods bisected by I-70, which was laid down through the city in the 1950s, haven’t shared in the good fortune. Thanks to the many trucks roaring through and the eyesore of the elevated highway, Elyria-Swansea and nearby communities suffer from excessive traffic, environmental problems, and disinvestment.

Proponents of the highway plan call it a “corridor of opportunity” and are promising a network of parks, open space, and transit. A big sweetener is the proposed 800-foot-long park they say would be built on the highway lid.

But according to community activist and  former City Council member Susan Barnes-Gelt, the design does little to mend connections between the two neighborhoods. She says there’s no excuse for widening highways through urban neighborhoods in an age when many cities are choosing to tear them down.

In a Denver Post editorial earlier this year, Barnes-Gelt wrote that under Mayor Michael Hancock, what could have been a big step forward for the city is “morphing back into a highway project.” It’s especially disappointing considering Denver’s recent history of smart planning, she said.

“This is what happens when people that can make a difference don’t pay attention,” she told Streetsblog.

Barnes-Gelt said she would rather see the highway converted into an urban boulevard.

“You do not build or expand interstate freeways either in cities or near cities,” she said. “You do not sacrifice the city and county of Denver, the state’s capital. We’re one of the most financially emerging western places in the country.”

Part of the problem is that the plans were hatched about 10 years ago, she said, which might as well have been a century ago in terms of thinking about urban transportation.

“The good old boys started the classic DOT process of creating the steering committee and putting ideas out there,” she said. “The steering committee didn’t include any visionary people. It was the good old boys. It was the truckers.”

There has been a leadership vacuum around the project since then, Barnes-Gelt said, especially from prominent elected leaders. One notable exception is Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher, who came out against the project a few months ago.

“It makes no sense to me and is not good public policy to build a 10-lane freeway when it likely will never be needed, may in point of fact be obsolete sooner than later, is destructive to neighborhoods, and a wasteful expenditure of taxpayer dollars,” Gallagher said in a letter to Colorado DOT this April.

Meanwhile, a group of architects in the city, including Peter Park, the former planning director, put forward a plan to instead reroute I-70 around the neighborhoods along I-270. But state DOT officials have said that would cost twice as much because it would require adding lanes to I-70 and I-270.

Barnes-Gelt says it looks like institutional inertia is going to prevail, unless an environmental lawsuit puts this project back in purgatory for another decade, which she thinks is possible.

“This project has been going on for so long, people are exhausted,” she said. “The world has changed, and the institutions… they’re still partying like it’s the 1970s.”

  • Alex

    How does this happen in this day and age? Combine the price tag with the mountains of evidence that adding highway capacity to “ease congestion” is a fool’s errand and it’s absolutely baffling that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, could support a boondoggle like this.

  • JKR

    I hail from the northeast as these parkway ideas are becoming quite absurd. Your grandparents wanted the urban freeway so you can live in the suburbs far far away from urbanism thus America needs to learn how to eat there peas and move on from these pie in the sky ideas unless you plan on being bold and just getting rid of the urban freeway all together. Those ideas are too radical in 2014 but reimagine your city without the freeway… Try it some time, it’s quite liberating.

  • Joe R.

    “Corridor of opportunity” for whom? Highway builders? It’s hard to see how anyone else will benefit here. The least they could have done was bury it for its entire length instead of only 800 feet. If we must have urban highways, they should be underground where you can’t see them, hear them, or smell them. And make sure the exhaust from any ventilation is directed over the suburbs these highways primarily serve.

  • anon_coward

    there is a lot of traffic on it from what i’m told, but they should build the highways outside of cities and have the smaller roads cut into the city

  • Kevin Love

    $1.8 BILLION! Cough, choke.

    What a lot of money to throw around and waste. A tiny fraction of that would provide Dutch-standard infrastructure for the entire city of Denver. With enough left over to endow a big ice cream and pizza party for the city’s citizens every year in perpetuity.

    $1.8 billion… wow… so many useful things could be done with that kind of money.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I think this is what the moderator was complaining about the other day. Can you come up with something new to say, or say nothing? It’s becoming tiresome.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I’ve never been there but it looks like the street grid is at least sort of connected in the existing state. The proposal disconnects some of the crosses, and we know projects in the past have eliminated crossings to save money. It also adds what can be considered a four lane divided highway on either side of the buried road. This additional roadway serves no particular economic purpose since there are no homes or businesses or points of interest on the trench or any of its cross streets. It only exists because the other road exists. An analogy from my area would be Moraga road running along CA-13. Both are four lanes and setup as high speed thru roads. For pedestrians these freeways flanked by local boulevards are major obstacles that double the walking distance between points that by right ought to be adjacent.

  • Alex

    What’s most galling to me is that a $1.8 billion highway project like this can lumber through on “inertia” but to get money for a comparably-priced transit project cities have to beg, borrow, and steal, not to mention fight the crazies who jump up and down screaming about how it will ruin “the character of the neighborhood. Or what about simple bike and pedestrian infrastructure? I hear people complain about that all the time, even things as simple and cheap as curb bulbs. Of course the people who allocate the money are mostly baby boomers who can’t imagine not being able to drive and park everywhere they go.

  • BB

    put forward a plan to instead reroute I-70 around the neighborhoods along I-270. But state DOT officials have said that would cost twice as much because it would require adding lanes to I-70 and I-270.

    so rather than do it right! We go for the chap, destructive way.

  • Zmapper

    EDIT: Detailed cost discussion of the misleading CDOT estimate is available here: http://www.geslivewell.org/uploads/1/6/3/2/16325376/i-76_i-270_replacement_of_elevated_i-70.pdf

    In short, a reroute to CDOT’s standards would likely cost around $1-$1.5 billion, less than half of the $3-$4 billion CDOT estimates. Both figures are direct expenditures, excluding externalities such as health impacts of an elevated viaduct in a city neighborhood.

    According to Google Earth imagery, I-76 west of I-25 has 14 grade-separated crossings (counting parallel crossings as one crossing), 13 where I-76 passes over and 1 underpass. I-270 east of I-76 has 8 crossings; 6 overpasses and 2 underpasses. I’m excluding for now the I-70/I-270, I-25/I-76 and I-76/I-270 interchanges and any crossings in between as they will likely need substantial reworking to accommodate a reroute of I-70. In total, excluding the aforementioned interchanges, a worst-case scenario would result in the replacement of 22 overpasses, counting parallel mainline bridges as a singular crossing.

    Additionally, I-76 and I-270 were constructed at-grade with fill, not elevated like I-70. At-grade is substantially less expensive as well as easier to construct, with less complicated machinery and staging. Elevated highways are both more expensive, as well as harder to stage construction. CDOT can’t reconstruct the roadway in a trench until they remove the viaduct, the viaduct can’t be removed until traffic is removed, traffic can’t be removed (to what would be presumably CDOT’s standards for short-term mitigation) until temporary roadways are constructed, and as no space exists for temporary reroutes adjacent to the viaduct, therefore, CDOT may ironically end up using I-76 and I-270 as construction detours during viaduct removal and trench construction.

    Assuming for sake of argument that the same 10-lane freeway were to be constructed, with 12′ shoulders (x4 for both sides of both directions), 12′ lanes (x10), 4′ median between HOT and general purpose (x2), and a 4′ center barrier, the absolute minimum width required is 180 feet. Generally speaking, the right-of-way CDOT already owns in most places exceeds the minimum required with. While some spot condemnations may be needed, as well as the conversion of some berms to have additional fill underneath the roadway with solid retention walls, the vast majority of the width needed for widening comes from existing grass medians and grass shoulders. Unlike CDOT’s current proposal, no whole urban blocks will need to be demolished at high cost.

    If the viaduct is close to failing, a short-term solution may be to ban vehicles with a GVR over 10,000 LBS (trucks and buses), with heavier vehicles rerouted on I-76 and I-270. Cars and light-duty trucks impact the road surface substantially less than heavier trucks and buses, meaning the road lifespan may be able to be extended for additional years until a more permanent replacement is constructed along I-76 and I-270.

  • Kevin Love

    OK, what’s your proposal for $1.8 billion? Ice cream, pizza and decent infra works for me…

  • laldm109

    I wish a larger cross-section of society (not just us urbanists) understood the concept of induced demand, so they would understand that this is a fool’s errand and fight against it. Traffic will only get worse.

    I assume highway engineers are wilfully ignorant of induced demand, seeing as society wouldn’t need nearly as many of them if they admitted its existence.

  • C Monroe

    Crazy idea, turn it into a boulevard with light rail running down the middle of it. Make thru traffic go around the city.

  • Pro Choice

    Non-urbanists accept congestion, but see it as need for more capacity.
    We’re not trying to reduce congestion, just increase capacity.
    Many of us are also strong supporters of mass transit, but of real transit rail, subway, LRV (not the bussing some citys try to pass off as rapid transit). Urbanists hurt their own case by calling areas “transit rich” that are not, just to add density. We recognize the benefits of transit and density, but we also see Urbanists pushing “one size fits all” and prefer choice.

  • bike5280

    To add to the insanity, RTD is spending a billion dollars on commuter rail which directly parallels this highway. The best way to dilute returns on transit investment is to spend double that on highway widening.

    But the reality, as I understand it, is that the highway viaduct needs to be replaced and the only way to obtain funding is from floating a bond against future toll lanes which essentially requires widening the highway.

  • As an Urban Design Architect, THE 270 and 76 RE_ROUTE IS A BETTER AND MORE FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE WAY TO SOLVE I-70 PROBLEMS!!! The amount of money spent already to DRAW the I-70 plan is far less than to costs it will cause to the City of Denver,Adams County, and Jefferson County. County Governments must put Politics aside to create a great Metropolitan Area with this project. The 270 and 76 proposal is a much better solution for the long term metropolitan growth and traffic through the city. By the way, where will all the I-70 traffic go for a decade while the tear down, clearing, and new construction occurs? The widening of 270 and 76 will not require many right of way enlargements, nor shall it affect much residential at all whereas the I-70 project will be a noisy and dusty mess for many residential areas. STOP THE I-70 PROJECT WHILE WE CAN!!

  • david r

    Yes, that would be a crazy idea. I would dare call it stupid, ignorant and completely out of touch.

  • david r

    So we should, what? Shut it down, tear it down and get rid of I-70?
    Yeah.. great plan.

  • douglasawillinger

    Articles as this only further underscore Streetblog’s continuing irrelevance to comprehensive transportation planning.

  • douglasawillinger

    How about addressing the waste within government on a broader scale like the siphoning of gasoline taxes so road projects must use interest paying bonds to make banks richer? It is as if Streetsblog is funded by entities as Credit Suise.

  • douglasawillinger

    The deck should be at least 6 rather than only 2 blocks and the project should include the support structures to allow additional deck segments ala Cincinnati Fort Washington Way.

  • kduble
  • mckillio

    They have now stated that traffic will be rerouted to I76 and 270, go figure.

  • mckillio

    And they’re going to reroute to them for the I70 construction anyways.

  • mckillio

    Absolutely.

  • mckillio

    Traffic is really bad during rush hour but it seems that there is always random construction and it is dated in general. However it’s how you get to and from the airport for the most part where about 35,000 employees work up there, not to mention the passengers. Once the commuter rail goes in next year the amount of traffic should decrease.