Photo by Bryan Grossman
Photo by Bryan Grossman

Colorado’s already-strained infrastructure could be further tested, as some experts expect the state’s population to grow from 5.4 million to 8 million in the next 20 years. Most of the influx will likely be along the Front Range, and growth projections mean transportation and stormwater entities have started addressing shortcomings today to meet tomorrow’s demands.

Falling behind

Charged with maintaining, repairing and plowing more than 23,000 total lane miles of highways and 3,447 bridges, there is no shortage of projects on the Colorado Department of Transportation’s to-do list.

But three projects, according to CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt, have climbed to the top of the priorities list in recent years: the widening of Interstate 70 from west of Denver to Idaho Springs; the widening of Interstate 25 from northern Denver to Fort Collins; and the widening of “The Gap,” the 17-mile portion of I-25 between Monument Hill and Castle Rock.

“Those are major corridors from a road capacity perspective,” Bhatt said, adding the environmental studies have been accelerated on the Monument/Castle Rock corridor and that project could be completed by 2021.

“If the money shows up, we’ll be ready,” he said.

But CDOT is already facing funding challenges. The department relies on state gas-tax collections (the 12th lowest in the country), and the tax has not been increased since 1991. Amid other challenges, Bhatt said the revenue problems have led to a $1 billion projected shortfall each year for the next decade.

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“We’re falling farther behind,” Bhatt said. “Our budget is now almost exclusively used to maintain the system we have. Everyone says to widen I-25 and I-70 and U.S. 50 to deal with this incredible growth, but the budget has not grown, and we’re spending less per capita today than we did in 1991.”

Bhatt said the oft-cited conservative nature of Coloradans and tax hikes shouldn’t be a barrier to growth, pointing to fiscally conservative states such as Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa that have raised taxes to support transportation. Bhatt also pointed to issues associated with the hospital provider fee, which is treated as a tax under Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights regulations and siphons funding that would go to state departments such as transportation.

“Turning this into a red or blue, Republican or Democrat issue is silly to me,” Bhatt said. “Transportation investment has always been a bipartisan area of support.”

As politics go, infrastructure campaign promises made by President Donald Trump, along with a list released by his administration that included I-70 and I-25 as national infrastructure priorities, could mean significant federal funding under a rumored $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Bhatt has his eye on the Capitol.

“There’s an air of cautious optimism right now,” Bhatt said. “We’re optimistic because the president and others have talked about infrastructure as an area they want to get something done.”

Other challenges

The Pikes Peak region is also experiencing unprecedented growth, and the city’s public works department is facing similar challenges to those of CDOT.

Travis Easton, Colorado Springs public works director, pointed to the first year of the 2C sales tax for roads as a success, adding there are 230 lane miles planned for repair in 2017.

The tax brought in about $50 million and about $47 million was spent in 2016, he said. The $3 million balance will carry over to projects this year, he said.

Easton added that the tax has provided flexibility in how the city spends its Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority funding. The approximately $16 million a year can now be used for maintenance.

But funding projects isn’t the only challenge, Easton said.

“We’re working right now on a 10-year capital plan,” he said. “This year, we’re putting dollars to that. But we run into things beyond funding, like contractor availability and materials.”

Easton said 2C has been used to repair salvageable roads, not reconstruct roads that have fallen into disrepair.

“We’re addressing roads that, if we don’t get to them soon, will … need full reconstruction, and 2C is not meant for reconstruction.”

There’s a growing focus on transit -oriented development and infill to build the city’s existing core.

“That would include incentivizing infill construction,” Easton said. “A lot of those considerations reside in the planning department, and they are taking that into account.”

‘Buckets of projects’

The biggest challenge for the city in the near future is stormwater management, he said.

Through an intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo County, Colorado Springs agreed to $460 million in stormwater projects in 20 years.

In 2013, the city conducted a stormwater needs assessment with engineering consultant CH2M Hill.

“Basically it was an assessment that sought to gather all the stormwater infrastructure needs, put them in a list and come up with an aggregate [cost],” said Richard Mulledy, the city’s stormwater division manager. Project cost estimates were around $500 million.

Recently the city began working with Pueblo County (the downstream recipient of much of Colorado Springs’ discharge and sediment) to come up with a stormwater program based on the CH2M Hill study. To compound matters, Pueblo County commissioners filed a motion Feb. 8 to join an Environmental Protection Agency’s suit against the city of Colorado Springs over Clean Water Act violations, stating a lack of mitigation by Colorado Springs has led to elevated levels of E. coli, flooding and erosion.

“What we did was we came up with an agreement we thought would meet most of the project needs on that list and meet the requirements of the city’s MS4 permit, which is a federally mandated permit to discharge city stormwater,” Mulledy said.

Mulledy said several projects designed in 2016 will begin construction this year, such as the $4.5 million Sand Creek channel stabilization project near Platte Avenue and Powers Boulevard.

The city also plans to retrofit and increase the size of a regional water quality pond at America the Beautiful Park, Mulledy said.

Near Voyager Parkway, a multimillion-dollar channel stabilization project will also begin this year.

“We have another 30 to 35 individual projects ranging from $50,000 to $400,000 each,” Mulledy said. “We will spend about $12 million to $14 million on actual capital projects this year.”

The city is committed to fixing its stormwater infrastructure, he said.

“Lack of infrastructure hurts,” he said. “It hurts the economy and it’s definitely unsafe. But it’s not just a safety and economic issue — it needs to be done anyway.”

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