While the 17-mile stretch of two-lane interstate between Monument Hill and Castle Rock has gotten the bulk of commuter attention recently, the corridor that connects Pueblo with the southern edge of Colorado Springs has also been seen as a symbol of a transportation system that once seamlessly connected the nation, but has since fallen victim to neglect and disrepair.
A tangled web
“I think that available funding has gone to the Denver area and I-70 in recent years,” said Colorado Springs City Council President Merv Bennett. “There’s been so much growth there. But we’re beginning to get some attention. The work in progress through Pueblo is very positive — that was a very dangerous part of the highway.”
Bennett also touched on the combined impact of state transportation underfunding and federal regulations. An ongoing Pueblo project demonstrates just how difficult upgrades can be.
In 2000, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration initiated a study of the 7-mile stretch of I-25 that runs from U.S. Highway 50 to Pueblo Boulevard.
“I-25 through the city of Pueblo is an aging facility that was constructed between 1949 and 1959,” the authors of the study noted. “The highway engineers at that time designed the freeway to serve transportation needs through the year 1975.”
The study led to a “Community Visioning Process,” and eventually the “New Pueblo Freeway Project.” Planning slowly advanced and the state acquired funding for an Environmental Impact Statement, required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The draft EIS was published in 2011, leading to a final EIS in 2013. The $69 million project finally broke ground in 2015 and has yet to be completed.
“We don’t yet have all the funding,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, “but it’s very important, both for public safety and aesthetics. Anyone who drives it is aware of the tight curves, the absence of merge lanes — it’s a dangerous stretch of road. We’ve held off on some of the aesthetic improvements we want to make until the route realignments are complete. There’s an economic development perspective as well. We want people driving through town to have a good impression of our city, maybe stop and visit.”
CDOT well understands the importance of the project to the local, state and even national economies.
“I-25 serves as a critical north-south link in the nation’s Interstate Highway System and as a strategic international corridor under the North American Free Trade Agreement,” according to CDOT’s executive summary of the project. “The segment of I-25 that passes through Pueblo serves interstate travel, regional travel, local trips [with origins and destinations within Pueblo] and freight traffic.”
If that’s the case, why not build it now?
Finding the money
“Building the interstate system was a major and heroic undertaking,” said Colorado Springs urban planner/developer Les Gruen, who represented Colorado Springs on the state Transportation Commission for eight years. “But it came with a catch. After the system was built, the federal government passed on the responsibility for maintenance to the states. So the question became, ‘How do you pay for these things, because they’re so darned expensive?’
“The state and federal gas taxes yield less and less revenue, thanks to inflation and more fuel-efficient cars,” he said. “CDOT’s budget was around $1.2 billion when I was on the commission, and that only left about $100 million annually for capital projects.”
That’s not much, Gruen noted, especially when you factor in urgent needs from Denver and the northern Front Range.
“The I-70 project [in northeast Denver] will cost about $1.2 billion, I-25 from Denver to Fort Collins is a mess, so there are lots of competing projects out there,” he said.
Getting funding for Colorado Springs and Pueblo projects may require the two cities to work together.
“We need to team up collaboratively and be a voice for southern Colorado,” said Pace. “It’s important that we speak as one. We’re very, very eager to work with Mayor [John] Suthers.”
Pace is also intrigued by the prospect of passenger rail along the Front Range.
“We need to consider multi-modal solutions,” he said. “Senate Bill 153 would establish the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, which would be a good first step.” The commission would be tasked with “facilitating the development and operation of a Front Range passenger rail system that provides passenger rail service in and along the Interstate 25 corridor.”
In any case, the prospects for more highway funding are dim.
“At present,” Gruen said, “there’s no appetite among Colorado residents to tax themselves [for transportation infrastructure] in any way, shape or form.”
Prior to construction of I-25 along Colorado’s Front Range, two-lane highways with poor signage, frequent intersections and sharp curves connected cities from Greeley to Trinidad. U.S. 85/87, a particularly hazardous stretch popularly called “the ribbon of death,” linked Denver and Colorado Springs.
The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 authorized President Dwight Eisenhower’s federally funded Interstate Highway System on June 29, 1956. Construction began immediately throughout the nation, unimpeded by the fiscal and regulatory restraints that came in subsequent decades. The first contract was awarded six weeks later, as Missouri began construction of I-70 in St. Charles County.
Colorado wasn’t far behind. Work on I-25 through the state began later that year. The 9.2 miles through Pueblo opened on July 1, 1959, the 12-mile segment through Colorado Springs a year later, and by 1961, much of today’s I-25 had taken shape.
Inspired by the autobahns that Germans used to move men and materiel rapidly during World War II, Eisenhower believed a similar system would serve the United States well in war and in peace. The 1956 legislation called for an extended network of 41,012 miles and nationwide design standards, including:
• A minimum of two lanes in each direction;
• 12-foot lanes;
• A 10-foot right paved shoulder;
• Design speeds of 50-70 mph;
• Uniform bridge clearances;
• Access on and off the roadway controlled with interchanges and grade separations.
The system was funded by a 90-10 percent split between the states and the federal government. The federal portion was funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, using proceeds from the federal gas and lubricants tax. Much of Colorado’s system was funded with a 95-5 split, taking into account the amount of federally owned land within the state.
As envisioned, the system has been a game-changer. Twenty-five percent of all vehicle-miles in the country are traveled on interstate highways. In Colorado, commerce flows disproportionately on I-70 and I-25, the state’s only continuous interstate highways.
Despite the importance of these links, interstate updates and maintenance have fallen behind. The 17-mile segment between Monument and Castle Rock retains its original four-lane configuration, as does about 30 miles of roadway between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Suthers signaled strong support for upgrades.
“The Monument-Castle Rock project needs to be done as soon as possible,” he said, “but eventually we’ll have to have passenger rail. And I-70? I really don’t know what the solution is.”
(Read about breaking the transportation logjam in the Feb. 24 edition of CSBJ.)