I-70 viaduct built below ground could bury a north Denver feud

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Don Hunt may be the hardest-working man at the State Capitol -- and that's saying a lot as the legislature heads into its final week. The head of the Department of Transportation helped pull the plug on a Beltway Authority proposal -- and now he could bury a feud that divided north Denver fifty years ago...by putting the I-70 viaduct underground.

In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, the feds approved the 41,000-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. One of those highways, I-70, opened in 1964 and went right through the heart of Denver -- from Colorado Boulevard west through Swansea, Elyria and Globeville, a trio of poor, working-class neighborhoods filled with the offspring of immigrants. A swath of houses disappeared; the once-cohesive community was divided into little islands of residents.

Forty years later, as they assessed traffic eastbound from Denver on I-70, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration determined that it was also time to rebuild the 1.2 miles of elevated viaduct between Colorado and Brighton Boulevard, the main route out of downtown. As Luke Turf detailed in "My Way For the Highway," a 2005 Westword feature, CDOT collected almost 200 community ideas at the start of the project and a tunnel was floated as an alternative -- but CDOT decided early on that wasn't a viable option.

And as recently as December, at a meeting with Elyria businesspeople at the National Western Stock Show complex -- which, like the residents, has been trapped by the highway -- the concept of a tunnel was rejected. So was an idea to reroute I-70 far to the north, along I-76. The only two options still on the table: rebuilding the viaduct to the south -- which would run into the Purina factory, and 260 jobs -- or immediately to the north, wiping out still more houses.

But at a meeting tonight, CDOT will resurrect the notion of putting I-70 below ground along this stretch, building a deck over the highway that would become a park. "It's going to cost some extra money, but what these neighborhoods have been through will hopefully help balance the ledger," Hunt told the Denver Post yesterday.

The meeting runs from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Commerce City Civic Center, 7887 East 60th Avenue; there's a second meeting tomorrow from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Swansea Recreation Center, 2650 East 49th Avenue. The below-ground option would postpone the project and also cost more, with the state picking up the slack, Hunt says. But for the chance of reuniting these neighborhoods and also opening up this portion of north Denver, including the Stock Show complex, to new possibilities, it could be a very wise investment.

For more information, go to the CDOT website.

Discussions of highway construction sometimes turn radioactive. For more on this state's road warriors -- see Patricia Calhoun's December 22, 2011 story, "Plans for the Jefferson County Parkway are kicking up lots of dust."

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