Imagine that you are driving from Denver to Colorado Springs.
It’s 3 p.m. on a weekday and somehow you dodged rush hour in Denver. You are smooth sailing down Interstate 25, with a podcast on the stereo and beginning to think about the evening ahead of you. You have just passed the southern exit of Castle Rock, otherwise known as the last chance to reasonably get off the interstate for the back roads home, when you see the dreaded brake lights. Suddenly you can almost sense the expletives in the air by all the not-so-happy motorists around you. You’re stuck — and you’re not even in Denver anymore.
This has become the new normal for those traveling between Castle Rock and Monument. Some have found a way to avoid it and take the scenic route, but for many of us who roll the dice, we get caught too often.
For several years, the widening I-25 has been a large topic of conversation. Since I frequently drive the corridor between our Denver and Colorado Springs offices, I acknowledge that it is a pinch-point of congestion. And it’s not the seductive congestion that I like to advocate for in our urban areas — it is the type of congestion that will make you pull your hair out and dream of the potential for a better, less stressful way to get between the two cities.
Let’s take a brief look at history of the I-25 corridor and the never-ending conundrum of interstate widening. Interstate 25 was completed through the state of Colorado in 1969 with four lanes (two each direction) through most the state. Multiple expansions have occurred along the corridor since that time, including the infamous “COSMIX” project in Colorado Springs that increased capacity from four to six lanes in 2007. To the north of the city, adding lanes continued through Monument in 2014 and from Castle Rock to Lone Tree this past year. Prior to the first traffic cone being placed in 2014 for the Monument widening, conversations were already in play about when the interstate would improve from the Douglas County line to Castle Rock.
In the same vein, it would be a good wager to presume that discussions are underway for widening other stretches to eight lanes. After all, it is a cyclical pattern — expansion does not solve congestion, but instead induces demand for more automobile traffic, and therefore increases strain on our highway network. Those who previously limited their travel on the interstate, took the Bustang or car-pooled are free to once again go on their consumptive pattern of happy motoring in single-occupant vehicles.
Unfortunately, we recognize the pattern and know that one day, we will simply just have one more lane of congestion. Temporarily, it’s worth it, right? There are two ways of thinking about this. The first, which is the most common: More capacity equates to a greater population, more building permits pulled, more economic development. Sure, until we get to the other effect: the ongoing cost of the economic development.
While there is economic development and tax dollars generated due to interstate expansions, it generally is of short-term value and low intensity — that’s in addition to the larger elephant in the state, which is a massive maintenance shortfall for our road network. Cities, Colorado Springs included, have incredible deficits with billions of dollars to maintain their infrastructure. CDOT, per its 2016 Transportation Deficit Report, stated in order to maintain to “the department’s ‘vision’ targets for these assets (bridges and pavement) would lead to a 10-year deficit of $2.96 billion.”
Our growing dependency on the automobile, inflation, greater fuel efficiency and an unchanged gas tax since the 1990s all have crippled the maintenance budget for our road network. Having said all that, I am willing to accept that the widening of I-25 between Castle Rock and Colorado Springs is inevitable, arguably necessary. However, I am unwilling to accept that this is the crutch that we continue to lean on. Longer-term solutions are imperative and need to be furthered simultaneously. The connection between Denver and Colorado Springs is very important to the overall health and desirability of the Pikes Peak region. We need to provide a less stressful alternative for the residents of the Pikes Peak region to get to and from Denver. In addition, and potentially more important for economic development in our region is that there needs to be a less stressful alternative for residents and visitors of the Denver Metro to get to and from Colorado Springs.
Denver is a booming world-class city with a high desirability to live and visit. There is no reason that the Pikes Peak region and the plethora of tourist destinations should not capitalize on it. We need a transit option beyond the bus — something like Denver’s commuter train from DIA to Union Station connecting downtown Colorado Springs to downtown Denver. It doesn’t matter if it is high speed or low speed, it does matter that it is predictable and does not require white knuckles and a Xanax. Imagine the economic development generated from a transportation network with long-term viability.
The Pikes Peak region could leverage its low cost of living, adjacency to the natural environment and begin to reap the benefits of connecting to our big brother — Denver!
John Olson is a director of urban landscape and architecture. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.