Dave Watt has been acquainted with the Interstate 25/Cimarron interchange in some way since 1984, the first 15 years working for El Paso County, then as resident engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Watt has dealt with various major events and projects along the way in his adopted home of Colorado Springs, from the mammoth COSMIX widening of I-25 to the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire and subsequent floods.

Through it all, the I-25/Cimarron interchange has stood out more as an ugly relic than a classic example of long-ago civil engineering. It actually was considered a top priority for replacement as far back as 1972 but never was funded … until now.

Finally, Watt and CDOT are ready to fix the problem. No more ceremonies, long-range plans and open houses. After a media event next week, Phase One work will begin on the $113 million interchange, creating a modern new gateway to the city and Pikes Peak region.

The current interchange has existed since 1960, and its main bridges since 1959. But the project now is on a fast track, scheduled to be finished and fully operational by Dec. 1, 2017 — just 21 months from now.

We’ve talked a lot about putting a new face on downtown Colorado Springs, from the U.S. Olympic Museum to downtown residential development and more. This interchange will have a similar impact, helping shape millions of visitors’ first impression of the area for decades to come.

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This interchange will help shape millions of visitors’ first impression of the area for decades to come.

That’s the challenge facing Watt and the project’s various other partners. Their finished product will belong to the community and its value will be immeasurable.

Anyone who has driven through the interchange area in recent weeks already has seen dramatic change during preliminary work (actually referred to as Phase Zero) — crews removed the invasive trees and plants along the meandering Fountain Creek. Eventually, those creekside areas will be restored with natural vegetation, wide trails and walkways.

But the main story will be the traffic improvements. In April, the antiquated southbound loop exit ramp “will go away,” using Watt’s words, and a temporary (but still much better) southbound exit off I-25 will open, as the monstrous choreography of the major project unfolds.

Speed limits will go down to 55 mph, but all lanes will remain open in daytime, with lane closures only at night.

One change from earlier indications: The shortcut connector from Eighth Street eastward to U.S. 24 and the interchange will not be finished until later, while much of that space (around the old Express Inn — and before that, Holiday Inn) serves as a short-term concrete plant, allowing for higher-quality materials and far less disruptive truck traffic.

Yes, many people’s lives and commutes will be affected. But only for 21 months, not a bad tradeoff to replace an interchange that was considered inadequate 44 years ago. There are other routes to Eighth Street businesses, which hopefully won’t suffer.

The best news is that the I-25/Cimarron interchange is totally on schedule and on budget. And the people making it all happen, starting with CDOT’s Dave Watt, are determined to give us our money’s worth.

Obviously, we’ll be paying close attention — and hoping the time will fly.

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