Last week, on a normal Wednesday evening, we drove up Interstate 25 to Denver for a family birthday dinner.
Because we were leaving Colorado Springs about 5 p.m., we gave ourselves at least 90 minutes just to reach the restaurant near Park Meadows.
Then a strange thing happened. It was like going back in time.
We entered I-25 with ease at the new Fillmore Street interchange, and then breezed up the road with no problem staying around the speed limit — smooth enough to use cruise-control. It reminded me of the old days, back in the late 1970s, when going to downtown Denver took no more than an hour.
This drive lasted just 48 minutes, and it was the same coming back several hours later. Of course, we knew it was a total aberration. Every previous drive to Denver this year had been crazy slow, congested and exasperating, no matter what time, no matter what day.
Colorado Springs’ leaders have been complaining loudly about I-25 for years to state leaders, from Gov. John Hickenlooper to the Colorado Department of Transportation. It’s ridiculous to have such long stretches of just two lanes on each side for the only freeway between the state’s two largest cities.
There was one victory — the project that widened I-25 to three lanes on each side for the 11 miles between Woodmen Road and Monument. At the time that work was done (starting in mid-2013 and finishing in 2014), we kept hearing that the next step would be widening I-25 from Monument to Castle Rock, the last remaining segment that’s at the same lane capacity today as 50-plus years ago.
After Hickenlooper was elected to his second term in the 2014 election, he made it clear that completing the I-25 expansion would happen during his second term. Considering how fast the earlier project came together a few years ago, that commitment made realistic sense.
More than a few folks still are hoping the state will make a higher priority of pushing a mass-transit solution as well, with commuter trains up and down the Front Range. In truth, we need that just as much as we need more lanes on I-25.
Lately, though, we’ve been hearing a different song from the state. Instead of the I-25 work being done before Hickenlooper leaves office in January 2019, CDOT folks now are saying it could be 10 years. They’re also suggesting the estimated price tag is a factor, warning that the cost of improving I-25 from Monument to Castle Rock could cost as much as $270 million for 17 miles of work.
That’s outrageous, and here’s why:
Just three years ago, with Colorado well beyond the recession, the 11-mile widening of I-25 in El Paso County cost $67 million. That computes to about $6 million per mile, and it included some extensive work around bridges and exits in populated areas.
By comparison, now the state is saying — just three years later — Monument to Castle Rock might come to as much as $16 million per mile, despite the fact that stretch of I-25 in southern Douglas County is wide-open with no urban or commercial development around exits to hinder the project.
If they want to say the cost has risen by a lower percentage, perhaps to $8 million a mile, that would be a little easier to swallow. But not an increase of 267 percent per mile through a rural, undeveloped stretch with no apparent need for acquiring more property beyond the existing right-of-way.
Amid all that, we saw a release last week from a state legislative committee, including Reps. Terri Carver and Dan Nordberg of Colorado Springs, lauding an agreement to tackle $3.5 billion in bonding for statewide infrastructure needs. That would include money for I-25 from Monument to Castle Rock, though the actual cost isn’t clear.
It’s encouraging to see that development, but a proposal that gargantuan might encounter stiff opposition. In other words, we can’t count on the legislative proposal as the only possible solution. We also should push back against the concept, already being mentioned, of making that part of I-25 a toll road.
First, we need to find out what makes the most sense for the least money. This should be pursued for another of those fast-paced, design-build projects, such as the far more complex I-25/Cimarron interchange in our midst.
And even if it costs $2 million more per mile (a 33 percent rise) than the 2013-14 widening, a bottom line in the range of $140 million to $150 million, completed by 2020, sounds far more acceptable than $270 million and 10 years to reality.
Regardless, Colorado Springs — and Douglas County, for that matter — cannot allow the I-25 problem to languish.
Because rest assured, nobody to the north is feeling sorry for us.