All else aside, Dave Watt simply does not want to over-promise and under-deliver.
As the Colorado Department of Transportation’s project manager for rebuilding the Interstate 25/Cimarron interchange, Watt has taken great care to avoid any brazen predictions throughout the $113 million undertaking.
So when Watt and Don Garcia, the deputy project manager for Wilson and Co. working with main contractor Kraemer North America, sat down this week for a progress update, my assumption was not to expect big news. Yet, as smoothly as construction has moved along since the first preparations took place in summer 2015, one had to wonder if the timeline might need adjusting — in a good way.
All along, we had heard the new interchange might be fully operational sometime in the fall of 2017, definitely by December, with perhaps only a little cosmetic work on the back end. Watt began our conversation saying the project still is on time and within budget. Then came some legitimate headlines.
1. Barring unforeseen problems or major weather interruptions, the new I-25/Cimarron interchange should be “fully operational” as soon as July, he said, meaning it could be able to handle the brunt of summer tourism traffic while final details are done. Watt emphasizes that some lanes still will be shifted to allow for median work and other details, so the speed limit will remain at 55 until all work is done later in the year.
2. Work will start in May on the new connector from Eighth Street to eastbound Cimarron and the interchange, and it should be completed in June (or, Watt said, early July at the latest).
3. When the interchange opens, it will include triple left-turn lanes from the northbound I-25 exit ramp (a huge backup problem in summer months) onto westbound Cimarron/U.S. 24 with continuous lanes much of the way to Eighth Street, a late upgrade.
4. New pedestrian/bicycle bridges over Monument Creek and Fountain Creek, connecting to enhanced 12-foot-wide trails, should be done by July, Garcia said. But the trails are not scheduled to reopen until August. Garcia added that when work is done, the trail-users should be happy with the improvements and aesthetics.
“The end is coming,” Watt said. “We’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
If you live in another part of Colorado Springs, perhaps you haven’t noticed. But for those of us west of I-25, it has been fascinating to watch, driving through the interchange area several times every week or more.
It was intended as a fast-track operation, helped by being a design-build project (where design and construction occur simultaneously) — which also allowed for flexibility. Just last week, Watt made a presentation to a national meeting about the design-build concept and how well it has worked here.
“From the start, it’s been a matter of great communication among everyone involved, because it’s such a large and complicated project,” said Watt, CDOT’s resident engineer.
He marveled at how Kraemer North America has followed the meticulous plans, from scheduling crews for more than 300 night shifts to putting blankets over just-poured concrete during cold months to make sure it cured properly.
Another positive: The actual closures for ongoing work, especially for Cimarron Street east from the interchange into downtown, have been far less than initially expected, and almost all at night. Watt credits the communication and cooperation among all involved.
The last girders for the northbound I-25 bridge over the interchange are being installed now, with all interstate traffic currently on what eventually will be just the southbound bridge. That northbound bridge will be a focal point in weeks ahead, as crews also prepare to create that connector from Eighth Street.
The plan is to finish all the paving, stoplights and necessary fixtures in time to make all the new lanes, off-on ramps and new traffic patterns ready to go in July. Then, with tourists and commuters enjoying the huge improvements, crews can spend the following months on medians, building a barrier between the northbound and southbound bridges, and installing more lighting as well as landscaping.
You also won’t see any walls, such as the ones along I-25 farther north that minimize sound impacts. With no residential areas near the Cimarron interchange, the rebuilt freeway and entry-exit ramps will have unobstructed views to the east and west.
What we’ll have, in a few short months, is an impressive gateway to Colorado Springs and the region, providing a classy first impression to millions of visitors each year. You could call it the city’s most significant economic development project in years, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
We talked about some shared old memories, such as staying at the once-spiffy Holiday Inn next to the interchange before it deteriorated into the Express Inn. That site will be the connector route now from Eighth Street. And we talked about the paralyzing summer traffic snarls that now will be minimized.
As Dave Watt said, the end is nearing. And if the road construction industry needs a textbook example of how a large-scale project should work, this would be the perfect candidate.
(Editor’s note: This column was revised on April 10 to clarify details about continuing lower speed limits and altered lanes beyond July, and that the hiking/biking trails around the interchange area will not reopen until August. The headline also has been changed to avoid confusion.)