At a tumultuous meeting last month in north Denver’s Swansea neighborhood, an angry crowd shouted down the Colorado Department of Transportation’s executive director as he tried to explain its long-planned reconstruction of Interstate 70 through their community.
The state wants to add toll lanes to the interstate, and new streets to the north and south, tripling its overall width through the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods. It would also replace a deteriorating viaduct with a highway that would be up to 40 feet below existing homes, partially capped by a street-level green space. The crowd didn’t buy that plan. They saw an even larger highway plowing through largely Latino neighborhoods that have been victimized by discrimination since the highway was built a half-century ago, ruining home values and spreading asthma through their community. They want I-70 rerouted north along two other existing interstates, cutting a triangular path around north Denver.
Director Shailen Bhatt told them they have a recourse. They could sue.
They’re taking him at his word. Opponents have met federal investigators to voice their fears that tunneling the highway beneath their community would expose them to lead and arsenic particles from an old smelting plant. One lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency awaits a court hearing, and opponents are raising money to broaden the fight. They contend the Federal Highway Administration also violated environmental laws when it approved the state’s plan in January.
On separate front, three community organizations represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, last November filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Justice, as well as the Federal Highway Administration. The Colorado Latino Forum, Cross Community Coalition and Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association argue the project would impose “disparate and severe environmental and economic impacts” on communities long suffering from the consequences of state transportation policies.
“This whole thing is such a big mess, and it’s so unnecessary,” said Becky English, the Sierra Club’s volunteer manager for the I-70 fight.
After 14 years of wrangling and revisions, coalitions of neighborhood and environmental groups will be asking federal judges to send CDOT’s $1.2 billion project back to the drawing board.
So, the question arises: After all these years of planning, after CDOT ruled out other options, after the federal government and Mayor Michael Hancock, among other elected officials, have given their blessing to the project, why do critics still think they have shot at stopping it? The Colorado Independent asked — and threw in a few more questions to boot.
First, a reminder. What is this reroute people are calling for, and why did CDOT rule it out?
From the east, I-70 travelers would turn northwest onto I-270 in east Denver near Quebec Street, pass through part of Commerce City to I-76, then turn southwest on I-76 to rejoin I-70 near Wadsworth Boulevard.
CDOT dismissed this option six years ago and contends that would triple the costs. Commerce City and Adams County leaders also condemned the rerouting idea, saying it would flood their communities with new traffic, depress property values and diminish their health.
Sean Ford, Commerce City’s mayor, told The Colorado Independent that if all that interstate traffic poses local health issues, he doesn’t want it diverted to his town.
“I don’t want to see 16 lanes of traffic here,” he said, “just to move that problem from their community to ours.”
He also said that rerouting a portion of I-70 to Commerce City would alter property values dramatically. In the north Denver neighborhoods “that would cause a windfall,” he said, “and decrease the property values to the area where the highway would be relocated.”
The federally approved option won the support of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who envisions it as a vital component of six north Denver revitalization projects, including an expanded National Western Stock Show complex, rebuilding Brighton Boulevard, a new riverside park, a new rail station, and neighborhood improvements above the tunneled interstate. It also drew praise from Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce president Kelly Brough, who said that now, “we can move forward in that investment and ensure our entire region benefits from it.”
The revitalization projects are being undertaken by the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, an arm of the mayor’s office. Anna Jones, its executive director, would not speculate about the potential effects of I-70 lawsuits on those efforts.
But she counts planned improvements in the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods, including bicycle and pedestrian paths, better housing, healthy food availability, odor reduction and the demolition of a crumbling viaduct, as “perhaps the most important” of all its north Denver projects. She said she understands some neighborhood residents hate the interstate plan, but notes the highway administration performed an extensive environmental study before approving it.
In its decision, “we see an opportunity to implement some positive results,” she said.
Who are the opponents, and how are they attempting to stop the project?
Many are neighborhood residents, but they have gained help from two prominent environmental groups.
Candi CdeBaca, a neighborhood native who lives in her great grandparents’ home, said the community was given no real options aside from a permanent interstate through their neighborhood.
“I definitely don’t think it’s inevitable,” she said of the federally approved plan. “Our chances are better than most people think.”
The Sierra Club already has a lawsuit pending in Washington that alleges the Environmental Protection Agency secretly informed CDOT it had adopted more lenient rules for measuring air pollution violations during highway projects.
The Sierra Club’s English said she also believes the Federal Highway Administration decision violated the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. No additional lawsuits have been filed, but a fundraising campaign is underway.
Earthjustice attorneys say investigators from the civil rights office of the highway administration came from Washington to talk with neighborhood residents in December — a move they interpret as a sign that their discrimination complaints are being taken seriously. The highway administration declined to discuss the status of its pending investigation with The Independent, instead sending a statement from its acting deputy director praising the project.
What do transportation officials say about all this?
CDOT says it has gone through an exhausting review of reconstruction options, and points to the book-length finding in which federal highway officials endorsed the state’s preferred option in January despite a pending Sierra Club lawsuit.
The Federal Highway Administration’s favorable decision found the project satisfied all environmental laws. It also says the project will benefit the community by replacing the despised viaduct with a below-ground stretch of highway.
The highway administration emphasizes the regional benefits of widening and reconstructing the interstate through Denver, saying millions of drivers will enjoy safer, less congested travel.
“We did get a record of decision from the Federal Highway Administration, which suggests to us that they did not find merit with the complaint,” CDOT spokeswoman Rebecca White said.
Is everyone in the neighborhood opposed to this and what, realistically, are the other options?
Not everyone is opposed. “I’m quite happy overall,” said Don Callarman, a 78-year-old man who left a rented home beneath the interstate and bought a house in a nearby neighborhood with a $50,000 down payment and moving expenses from CDOT.
The project is expected to result in the demolition of 56 homes, 13 businesses, one nonprofit and about half of the Swansea Elementary playground. CDOT already has relocated about half of the families.
The department has set aside $2 million for affordable housing, offered 42 months of rental assistance to displaced residents and interior storm windows and air conditioners to neighbors who plan to stay. So far, CDOT says it has helped 24 tenants in the highway expansion path become homeowners.
Callarman also says CDOT made the right choice. “I think there’s no question about it,” he said. “I think, quite frankly, it will restore the neighborhood.”
The depth of opposition to the I-70 project is unquestionable. Hundreds of people, many of them neighborhood residents, signed a petition to the U.S. Department of Transportation secretary last year objecting to the plan, and hundreds more crowded the CDOT neighborhood meeting last month.
The width is less clear. About 10,000 people live in the most affected neighborhoods, and no formal poll has measured their sentiments. Joel Minor, an Earthjustice attorney representing opponents, concedes that people who approve of the CDOT plan aren’t likely to call an environmental lawyer. That said, he added: “I certainly haven’t spoken to anyone who’s in favor of it.”
In its federal complaint, Earthjustice asked that “no further resources” be devoted to the I-70 project until discrimination issues are resolved. Previous complaints have taken six to 12 months, Minor said, and he doesn’t know how the Trump administration might affect that timetable or federal responses to civil rights complaints.
But his own clients hold disparate views about possible remedies, which are spelled out in the complaint. Among them: a longer covered tunnel with a ventilation system, rerouting diesel trucks onto the other interstates, community health programs and a longer-term commitment to affordable housing as north Denver gentrifies.
Most people involved in the debate agree on one thing: Something must be done about that viaduct.
It was built in the 1960s and designed to last 30 years. When highway officials began planning its replacement in 2003, neighborhood residents brought to meetings chunks of concrete that had tumbled from the overpass to the ground below. CDOT patched it up in 2011 but says those repairs are starting to fail. Meanwhile, it carries about 150,000 cars and trucks a day.
CDOT aims to start construction early in 2018 on a $1.2 billion project that could last five years. Opponents question that price tag, citing the potential for costly soil contamination and drainage problems in a two-mile stretch of underground construction.
This schedule assumes no unfavorable court rulings. Director Bhatt acknowledges that the Sierra Club has halted highway projects before and promised the crowd at last month’s meeting that if dispassionate judges find problems with the project, CDOT will try to fix them.
But department spokeswoman White calls removing and rebuilding the existing viaduct the only realistic alternative. CDOT has spent $120 million already, she said, from planning and design work on this project to clearing a path for the new interstate. She noted that federal consent would be required to reroute diesel truck traffic, a prospect CDOT considers highly unlikely.
What would CDOT do if opponents win a favorable ruling? That, she said, “is impossible to predict.”
Photo by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent