The 10-mile, $1.2 billion expansion of I-70 through Denver promises to bring more disruption to the already heavily polluted, largely Latino and low-income neighborhoods through which the highway runs.
But a new proposal from Omaha-based contractor Kiewit Meridiam Partners would compound existing problems of noise and general pollution by allowing for construction to be performed 24 hours a day for the next five and a half years.
Kiewit’s request will go before Denver’s Board of Public Health and Environment on Thursday, and neighbors are rallying in opposition.
“The cumulative impact of the noise pollution, the air pollution, the ground pollution — we know it’s just toxic for our bodies,” said Candi CdeBaca, a community organizer and City Council candidate who lives three blocks from the highway in Elyria-Swansea. “We know that there’s going to be noise at night anyway. This would be an extreme amount of noise for 65 months.”
CdeBaca and thousands of other residents have organized behind the “Ditch the Ditch” effort, which sought, unsuccessfully, to thwart the expansion.
Any nighttime highway construction requires a noise variance. What Kiewit is asking for would allow for noise up to 86 decibels between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., though that level — roughly equivalent to noise one would hear standing close to a garbage disposal or a food blender — would be the maximum allowed spike; the maximum hourly noise average would be 75 decibels, which is slightly louder than a vacuum cleaner.
Kiewit would be required to put in place noise mitigation programs and offer hotel vouchers to residents in the radius of immediate impact on particularly noisy nights — say, when crews have to demolish a bridge.
Without the OK from the Board of Public Health and Environment to perform this night work, Kiewit spokeswoman Hunter Sydnor said, commuters and residents would have to deal with a longer overall project timeline. She didn’t specify how much longer.
The I-70 expansion, which will add toll lanes from Brighton Boulevard in Denver to Chambers Road in Aurora, is just beginning, and currently slated to wrap up in 2022. The variance Kiewit seeks runs through 2023, just in case construction takes longer than expected, Sydnor said.
Without a variance, she added, “We would have to re-evaluate how we’re going to work. It would really create a lot of impacts to everyone. For the residents, the people on I-70, it would really dramatically increase the impacts on them.”
Many of those who live near the highway in Denver neighborhoods such as Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, upper Park Hill, Cole and Clayton aren’t concerned at the moment with what impacts they could see if Kiewit isn’t able to win it’s 65-month, 24-hours-a-day variance. They’re worried about the request on the table now, and a large crowd is expected to voice that worry at Thursday’s board meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. at 200 West 14th Ave.
Carmen Sanchez owns meat and bread shops on 46th Avenue that sit so close to I-70, one could leap from the elevated highway and land on her property. In a wealthier area, she said, such a noise request would never stand.
“People would protest, and they’d have more of a case,” she said in Spanish. “The Hispanics, we don’t have as much privilege.”
That the highway was built through these neighborhoods, and will now be expanded there, is itself evidence of how low-income residents have been undervalued, argued CdeBaca.
“We believe it exacerbates some civil rights issues caused when they first constructed I-70,” she said of the expansion, “and it really harms the planet and the health of the people surrounding it.”
Albus Brooks, a Cole resident and president of the Denver City Council — he represents much of the area affected by the expansion — said Friday he’s planning to push for amendments to Kiewit’s request, including one that would shorten the variance timeline from 65 months to 48 months.
“It’s ridiculous. I don’t even know why they had 65 in there,” Brooks said. “Our communities have been suffering so much from noise and disruption, and the houses are so close to this highway.”
Some property near the highway, including homes and the old Colonial Manor Motel, have been razed to make way for the expansion. Another roughly 250 homes have gotten sound mitigation work paid for by the Colorado Department of Transportation at a cost of about $15,000 per home. That work included installation of storm windows and insulation to reduce noise and dust.
Brooks would like to see more transparency with residents and businesses moving forward. He’s proposing, as an amendment to Kiewit’s request requiring that the company hold quarterly updates with the public.
But Brooks and the City Council have no say over the matter before the board next week. That board, which serves under Mayor Michael Hancock, has the final decision.
Having heard some of the concerns already voiced, Sydnor said Kiewit is open to changing its request, though she did not commit to any particular changes the company would embrace.
“We’ve been working really closely with (the city) to get this variance and to work together to find the right mitigation efforts they’re comfortable with that protect their residents,” she said. “We’re willing to work with them and with Councilman Brooks to try to find something that will work.”