Three community groups have filed a federal civil rights complaint in an effort to stop the state from pursuing its plans to expand I-70 through the Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods of north Denver.
The Colorado Latino Forum, Cross Community Coalition and Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association filed the complaint late Monday afternoon with the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Justice, as well as the Federal Highway Administration.
The groups argue that the nearly $1.2 billion project, which would replace the viaduct looming over the neighborhoods with a widened, below-grade freeway, would impose “disparate and severe environmental and economic impacts” on communities long suffering from the consequences of state transportation policies. I-25 and 1-70 sliced and diced Elyria-Swansea and their sister neighborhood, Globeville, in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. The replacement and widening of I-70 through Elyria-Swansea would only compound the ills inflicted upon communities that became the city’s industrial ghettos, the groups say. About 8 in 10 of the neighborhoods’ residents are Latino.
Fifty-six homes, 13 businesses, one nonprofit and the Swansea Elementary playground all lie within the project’s footprint. The Colorado Department of Transportation already has relocated about half of the families.
Proceeding with the project would be a violation of federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, the complaint says.
“We are asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to recognize and remedy the heavy cost that these communities have paid in reduced life expectancy, illnesses like childhood asthma and cardiovascular disease, and depressed property values,” said Heidi McIntosh, a lawyer at Earthjustice, the environmental law nonprofit representing the groups. “These communities have suffered enough from the burdens imposed by I-70, combined with other polluters, in their backyard. They deserve the same benefits as other Denver neighborhoods, where kids can play without worrying about freeway pollution and asthma attacks.”
The expansion project, now called Central 70, would reconstruct 10 miles of I-70 from Brighton Boulevard to I-270, adding an express lane in each direction in its first phase. The aging viaduct would come down to be replaced with below-grade lanes between Brighton and Colorado Boulevards, a stretch of which would be covered with a four-acre park/public space, Colorado’s first such covered highway. The lowered section of freeway would be widened enough to eventually accommodate two express lanes in each direction, tripling it in width along its passage through the Elyria-Swansea. Fewer than 150 feet would separate the back of Swansea Elementary from the lip of the cover, the complaint says. The lowering-and-covering option was one of several proposed by the Colorado Department of Transportation over the course the last decade or so. In January, the department made the option official, issuing its final environmental impact statement on the project. It awaits final approval by the Federal Highway Administration.
The community groups hope to halt that approval until the federal Department of Transportation’s Office of Civil Rights can investigate. The complaint asks the Justice Department to coordinate an immediate investigation and any enforcement actions that might come out of it.
Monday’s complaint follows a federal lawsuit filed in March by the Sierra Club and neighborhood groups against the Environmental Protection Agency. That suit challenges new Clean Air Act provisions that would clear the way for the expansion.
Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association founder Candi CdeBaca describes the civil rights complaint filed yesterday as the second front in the communities’ battle to “ditch the ditch” and reroute I-70 from the neighborhood, preferably along highways 270 and 76. Short of that, she says, other options might be to reroute heavy truck traffic, as well as long-term financial assistance to offset the environmental, health and economic impacts a many-years long construction project will have upon the community. That assistance includes more money for affordable housing to allow displaced residents who live in the neighborhoods to stay in there.
“People overwhelmingly want to stay in the community and the majority have been here for a very long time,” CdeBaca said. “CDOT will say we have had many community workshops to discuss this, but they allowed community input on surface-level things, and were finally given three arbitrary options for routes like you might give children three choices. If you ask anyone here if they want this, they will say, ‘Get it out.’”
Why, she asked, can’t a community long damaged by a freeway finally have it rerouted so that the neighborhoods can truly join the rest of the city? Why can’t 46th Avenue then be turned into a parkway as 6th Avenue is?
“Why is it not even on CDOT’s radar to give people here what others in the city have?” she asked.
Rebecca White, CDOT Central 70 spokeswoman, said the agency has repeatedly considered the option of rerouting the freeway north of the city and for many reasons, including fierce opposition from Adams County and Commerce City, has ruled it out.
“We analyzed it and analyzed it and analyzed it,” she said. “It’s an alternative we are not pursuing.”
In a statement to The Colorado Independent, the agency said it stands behind the 13 years of analysis and work with residents to find a way to replace an old, congested highway while reconnecting isolated neighborhoods to the city as a whole.
“CDOT’s engagement with residents and businesses as well as the commitments we’ve made, including a 4-acre park over the interstate, improvements to the community, homes and school, are unprecedented and reflect the Department’s intention to transform I-70 for travelers and adjacent neighborhoods.”
Photos by Tina Griego. Top photo: The I-70 viaduct looms over Swansea Elementary’s playground. Lower photo: Swansea resident Candi CdeBaca