Environmentalists oppose freeway plan

Photo by Brad Odekirk / Summit Daily
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Traffic along I-70 is busier in the westbound lanes Sunday morning as skier traffic increases flow, but afternoon traffic often comes to a standstill along I-70 under the Bakersville overpass going eastbound on weekends due to skier traffic and Front Rangers returning home after weekend getaways.
Brad Odekirk / Summit Daily

Allen Best
February 15, 2005

The Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter has formally opposed plans favored by state highway officials for Interstate 70 from Denver into the mountains.

Buses adhering to rails, the idea advanced by state transportation planners, is opposed by the Sierra Club, which instead wants more conventional trains.

As well, the national environmental group favors widening of Interstate 70 only where pinch points impair safety, not the more general widening of I-70 to six lanes through Clear Creek County envisioned by the Colorado Department of Transportation, familiarly known by its acronym, CDOT.

This adversarial position suggests a girding of positions by groups lining up on the twin issues of economics and the environment. Two nagging questions underlie the debate.

First is the great uncertainty of both the cost and feasibility of various mass-transit systems. And second, how tolerable are the environmental impacts of more highway widening?

Ski area operators want to see more immediate answers to congestion in terms of wider highways, while Clear Creek County and various environmental advocates have consistently called for a longer-term and possibly more expensive vision that embraces some kind of rail-based transportation.

Taking the bus

Among the state's set of six concepts is the idea of laying down rails in the median from the outskirts of Denver to the Eisenhower Tunnel.

Buses, which could be electrically powered, would be specially outfitted to glide on the rail. There would be two lanes for buses in the median from Denver to the tunnel. From the tunnel to Silverthorne there would be just one lane.

Critics have said that buses are too old-fashioned to win many riders. But Cecilia Joy, the former project manager for the I-70 project, says the buses offer greater flexibility.

At Silverthorne, the buses could go to dispersed locations such as Breckenridge, Vail, and even Steamboat Springs. Too, if they are electric, they are quieter and cause less localized air pollution, offering an environmental benefit.

In the case of accidents, buses could use normal traffic lanes.

Finally, the operating costs of such a bus system would be only $20 million to $30 million annually, a third to a fourth of what the state's transportation planners estimated would be necessary for conventional rail or monorail.

Rail-based buses currently operate in Melbourne, Australia, but in no place comparable to the mountain stretch I-70.

"That's one of the challenge is that it hasn't been used very often, although it is operating, whereas some of those advanced guideway systems, they're either at the blueprint stage or they're going through the final phase of testing. But to retrofit them to I-70 would be a whole new challenge," Joy said.

The state analysis estimated the cost of a fixed-guideway system, including a monorail, at $5.6 billion, well over the $4 million that state officials estimated can be rounded up for I-70 work in coming years. The bus idea does not come cheap, either, with estimates running from $3.2 billion to $3.6 billion.

But Bert Melcher, a Sierra Club representative, faults the state analysis.

"We do not feel that CDOT has examined the best possible rail options," he said.

He also said that the club's task force believes a rail-based mass transit can be built in phases, containing the cost below $2 billion. Committing to highway widening in Clear Creek County now excludes rapid mass transit in the future, he said.

Slow down?

Previously, Melcher had voiced general support for the state's bus idea. As such, the formal position is a significant turnaround.

"We gave it the benefit of the doubt," he said of his previous support. Now, he is persuaded that the buses would not capture a strong ridership.

The Sierra Club also says CDOT failed to make environmental costs the crux of its analysis. Blasting more lifts, impairing the air quality, and threatening the health of people living along the freeway makes the environmental considerations of more magnitude than the monetary cost, he said.

Finally, the Sierra Club faults the preliminary environmental analysis, which was released earlier this winter, for failing to identify a "vision' of what the mountains will be for future generations, the Sierra Club said.

"How much mountain sprawl do we want? How much pavement do we want? How many parking lots do we want?" the group said in a press release. "These issues need to be resolved before any irreversible highway construction is approved."

Melcher said it would be better to slow the process even more while communities assess the impacts of yet more access, whether by allowing more cars or providing mass transit, than to plunge forward.

The Sierra Club has 20,000 members in Colorado, half of them in metropolitan Denver.