Road Block!

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When I wrote about I-70 a year ago, the story started in 1988, when the state first began planning how it was going to tackle congestion in the mountain corridor. Twenty years and at least $30 million in studies later, a decision on a solution that everybody can live with may finally be at hand.

The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which is the big study that will determine the fate of I-70, came out last year recommending highway widening, and people in the mountain communities raised hell -- among other things, they wanted a transit solution instead of more highway lanes. And at the very least, they thought they should have been included in the process.

Russell George, then the new head of the Colorado Department of Transportation, agreed to put the PEIS report on hold in order to let stakeholders participate in a collaborative effort to decide what to do about I-70. Their decision is due in May.

So people who live in those mountain communities, such as Mary Jane Loevlie, a Clear Creek County activist who's a part of the PEIS collaborative effort and has either participated in or closely followed every study and meeting having to do with the I-70 mountain corridor for the past twenty years, was a little surprised, and irritated, when the Colorado Legislature suddenly took notice that congestion on I-70 is a problem and started introducing bills this session to solve it.

Today, the Senate Transportation Committee held hearings on tolling bills from senators Andy McElhany and Chris Romer. Dozens of people from the mountain communities lined up to testify in opposition – after participating this morning in an anti-tolling protest organized by senator Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne on the Capitol steps.

McElhany’s plan, to make I-70 from Floyd Hill to the Eisenhower Tunnel a toll road, was up for discussion first. The senator explained that his bill wouldn’t decide how to solve the congestion problem in the corridor; it would simply put a funding mechanism in place. With a noticeable tone of condescension, Gibbs asked McElhany if he had talked to one person – one resident, or business or official – in the impacted communities before introducing his bill, to which McElhany responded that all of Colorado is impacted by the I-70 mountain corridor.

But after Joe Blake of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce testified in favor of the bill, dozens of people testified against it, including the director and chair of the I-70 Coalition, which includes more than 30 cities and counties, as well as such private partners as Vail Resorts and Intrawest.

The recurring word was “premature,” as witnesses asked the senators to wait for the PEIS process to conclude before they took action.“We are two months from knowing if we’ve ended this twenty-year discussion. This bill will not help that,” said Gilpin County Commissioner Kevin O’Malley.

When testimony was limited to one minute because time was running short, things got tense. Longtime resident and former Idaho Springs official Randall Wheelock called the measure a “loose cannon bill," then yelled at the committee, “I’ve got a question for you and you can take one minute to answer it.” At that, many in the room broke into applause, but the outburst was quickly quashed.

Loevlie acknowledged that a lot of time and money had been spent studying the issue, and suggested the lawmakers need to take a much more in-depth look at all the work that has been done.

Miller Hudson, who'd led the effort to bring a monorail to the corridor several years ago, said he had come “to speak for evidence-based policy, and that neither bill fit that description.

In the end, the committee voted 5-2 to send McElhaney's bill to appropriations. But a couple of the yes votes came with disclaimers: Senators Bob Hagedorn and Suzanne Williams both said they would vote yes because they’d agreed to co-sponsor the bill, but added that they were dismayed by the lack of support and said didn’t know how they’d vote if the bill made it to the floor.

After a lot of similar opposition testimony, Romer’s bill to charge tolls during peak periods and create reversible lanes was delayed indefinitely. -- Jessica Centers

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