An informational meeting organized by Colorado Department of Transportation officials was overtaken by local protesters Thursday night at the Swansea Recreation Center in Central Denver.
Officials had come to detail next-step plans on the $1.2 billion “Central 70” interstate project set to begin early next year. Construction crews will remake 10 miles of I-70 that cut through the neighborhoods of Elyria and Swansea between Interstate 25 and Chambers Road. The officials never got the chance to give their planned presentations. The protesters wanted answers, not information, and mostly, they wanted to halt the project.
“The Ditch the Ditch people just kind of took over our meeting,” said one of the CDOT staffers greeting attendees.Inside, protesters were speaking into a portable sound system they brought themselves. They wore black scarves over their mouths to call attention to the fact that they’ll have to live for years amid the pollution generated by the construction.
Cars filled the parking lot and lined neighborhood streets outside. Kids played among “Ditch the Ditch” signs stuck in the lawn. A train horn sounded nearby and the floor of the building rumbled lightly.
Officials lined up to address the crowd included CDOT Director Shailen Bhatt and House Speaker Crisanta Duran.
Duran this year is at the center of high stakes ideological and practical negotiation at the Capitol over billions in transportation funding. Any deal would likely include a statewide campaign to ask voters to approve tax increases to help back bond proposals. Protesters in Elyria-Swansea threatened to work hard to undercut that kind of campaign. Duran represents the angry House District 5 Elyria-Swansea residents.
“The Speaker will address the crowd now,” said the event’s bilingual facilitator.
“Please, it’s just ‘Crisanta,’” Duran said. “We’re here to listen tonight. We want to do everything we possibly can to make sure that the resident in every community of Denver, including Elyria, Swansea and Globeville, that your voices are being heard and that we’re doing everything in our power as it relates to health, economic and environmental concerns. We want to listen. We want to continue to problem-solve.”
But Duran didn’t have answers the crowd sought. As some of them have been saying all along, they want the highway re-routed north out of the center of the city and into Adams County.
“The challenge is, if there is a reroute — and I’ve talked to leaders and community members, the people in Adams County,” said Duran “The problem is I have heard over and over again that they are adamant they don’t want the reroute in their area.”
“We are adamant!” the crowd shouted.
“We have to figure out how to bring people together,” said Duran. “Perhaps there’s a need for new conversations with Adams County leaders to find a way forward.” She was shouted down again.
“The people! Not the leaders!”
“All I’m saying is bring data,” said organizer Candi CdeBaca, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for generations. “We want to see census-tract data on how many people will be affected because it shows one to twenty-five.”
The protesters, during the meeting and afterward in interviews, circled back to the census data. They said it shows that there are 25 times more people who will be affected in the central Denver neighborhoods at the site of the proposed project than would be affected in the northern Adams County neighborhoods that would host the reroute.
But the decision on the location of the project had been made. The only way forward for the objecting residents is to sue the project authorities and win and/or to propose ways to make the project on the Elyria-Swansea site more palatable and more longterm beneficial — or at least less burdensome — for residents.
“We’re here to talk about next steps,” said Bhaat. He knew he was in for a rough night and he prepared for it. His line, the one he stood by throughout, was that the Central 70 project was moving forward and that part of that project process was dissent in the form of lawsuits. There would be no re-route, no reworking the project for health or safety reasons, he explained, unless the courts and “dispassionate judges” found that the planners hadn’t followed all the rules, hadn’t sufficiently considered all the options and properly made their intentions known to all the parties entitled to know.
“You still have an opportunity,” Bhaat said, moving back and forth on his feet, left hand in his suit pocket. “Some folks here talked about lawsuits. That is the American process. We don’t build roads like they do in China. I don’t get to just come in and say ‘I’m taking this property,’ or ‘I’m moving this here.’ There’s a NEPA process — the National Environmental Protection Act — that says these are the steps we have to follow. We had a record decision issued from the Federal Highway Administration that said we followed all the precepts of federal law. They’ve looked at water issues…
“If you don’t agree with our decision, there’s a 150-day window in which the Sierra Club — any group — can come forward and challenge our case,” he continued. “Now, if we’re wrong, if we got this wrong and you’re right, then we’ll do something else. Right? If we didn’t do enough communication, we’ll do more communication. If the court says we didn’t do enough mitigation, then we’ll come back and do more mitigation. If they say we didn’t adequately consider other alternatives, then we will follow what the court tells the Federal Highway Administration to do. That’s my commitment to you.”
“I came to tell you that this is the project we’re moving forward,” he said, and then repeated himself. “If a court decides… If there is evidence and proof we have not followed the law…
“Look, the Sierra Club has stopped other projects,” he said. “They have incredibly sophisticated lawyers… I’m not saying this is a fait accompli.
Residents were unpersuaded. Many were offended.
“We’re looking for your leadership – leadership, so that the community doesn’t have to get justice in a court,” said a woman at the front of the crowd.
“Laws and policy have created oppression in this community,” said a man in the back. “You’re asking a community to follow the same laws that have oppressed this community for generations. There is environmental racism — and there is another cycle coming. This isn’t about laws. This is about morals. It’s about not repeating the same mistakes.”
One of the organizers, Brad Evans, said that the idea that the best way to interact with a historically oppressed community is through lawsuits seemed especially cynical. Lawsuits cost money. They drag on. But men like Bhaat don’t stick around.
“He’ll be gone in two years,” he said. “Off to something better.”
Duran sat in the front row and watched the residents’ faces as they spoke.
“I think it’s a shame I-70 was placed where it was,” she said. “I know you’re angry and I’m sorry.”
“It’s hard to make these decisions,” said Bhaat. “There has been 50 years of industrial development in this area and there are 200,000 vehicles driving that road.”
A resident said proposed health protections would not be adequate.
“We will follow all the federal laws” meant to safeguard health, said Bhaat. “And we’ll hire 20 percent of the labor for the project from this neighborhood,” he added.
“So we can be digging our own graves,” came a shout.
A woman holding an infant on her hip asked Bhaat what she described as a simple question. “Would you choose to live here while this project is being done?”
“What is the point of the question,” said Bhaat. He never answered her.
“We’re going to fight, fight, fight this project,” one of the protesters said to the officials. The crowd cheered.
Photo of I-70 through Denver from The Colorado Independent