I-70 Earns National Notoriety for Blighting Denver Neighborhoods

I-70 has long divided neighborhoods, and CDOT wants to make it wider. Image: CDOT
I-70 has long divided neighborhoods, and CDOT wants to make it wider. Image: CDOT

Tearing down I-70 in north Denver neighborhoods and replacing it with a tree-lined boulevard would help mend the scars created by the freeway in the 1960s. Instead Colorado DOT wants to put a much bigger highway in a trench, making the asphalt scar three times wider than it is today.

That’s why the Congress for New Urbanism included I-70 on its new list of “Freeways Without Futures.”

CNU knows about cities. The nonprofit’s mission is to “create vibrant and walkable cities, towns, and neighborhoods where people have diverse choices for how they live, work, shop, and get around.” I-70 is one of 10 North American freeways that made CNU’s list.

CDOT knows about highways. Its mission with the I-70 project is to rush suburbanites and Utah-bound truck drivers through the low-income, mostly Latino neighborhoods of Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville a few minutes faster (until the highway inevitably fills back up with traffic, which is what happened on I-25).

Here’s more from CNU’s report:

In those historic minority communities, residents were cut off from opportunity, access, and needed services. Now, like many mid-20th Century highways, I-70 in Denver is reaching the end of its life cycle — and one viaduct along its route needs major repairs.

Instead, however, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has announced a $1.2 billion plan to tear down the viaduct, bury part of the highway, add four more lanes, and expand toll lanes, shoulders, and service roads. Along the way, the plan would require the state to acquire and demolish 80 residences and 17 businesses — including the neighborhood’s only source to purchase food.

In addition to cramming more cars, traffic, and pollution into the city, the construction process itself would stir up contaminated soil. One CDOT employee and lifelong neighborhood resident came out against the project for that reason, saying he and fellow CDOT employees don’t want to work on it.

CNU refers to the contaminated soil, as well as the road agency’s attempt to greenwash the widening with a tiny park over a portion of the 12-mile-long project:

Under CDOT’s proposal, burying part of the expanded I-70 would involve digging below the water table and into polluted soils. A partial 800-foot grass cover is proposed, which will be isolated between two large frontage roads, creating an isolated “recreation island” inaccessible by pedestrians or bicycle. Moreover, the data used to justify the project is more than a decade old and ignores trends of lower- than-expected motor vehicle use.

As CNU notes, there’s another option that would avoid harming these neighborhoods: Rerouting the highway along I-270, opening up north Denver to more walkable housing and economic development. CDOT is not considering this option.

This article was edited to reflect the fact that the CDOT employee who came out against the project was not an engineer.

  • beckyrep

    The state of Colorado (led by Governor Hickenlooper), the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the City & County of Denver have designed, funded, and publicized this atrocious project in ways I can only describe as morally bankrupt and civically irresponsible. The beltway alternative (I-76 / I-270) was never adequately considered or analyzed, in spite of the fact that the Highway Department (as it was then known) told people in the bisected communities of Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville 50 years ago not to worry, I-70 bisecting their communities was a temporary thing; that in a few short decades there would be a beltway far from their homes, schools, and churches. But now CDOT plans to split their communities even more egregiously — 20+ lane equivalent – REALLY?! All Coloradans and people of conscience should be opposing this shameful barbarousness, which is also enormously wasteful of taxpayer dollars.

  • Aelwyn

    Wow. Hyperbole much? After reading this article, you’d think those depressed communities were surrounded by a mile-wide, alligator-infested moat with no bridge. Look, I drive through there every day (not on I-70, but literally under the viaduct through the neighborhood in question) on my way to work. Is it a nice neighborhood? No. But you know what? Not every neighborhood in the city gets to be nice. Whether I-70 runs through there or not, there’s still going to be a giant-ass dog food plant right across the street, so it’s NEVER going to be Cherry Creek in there. I digress, however. The point is… it’s actually possible to enter and exit those neighborhoods. I-70 is not now (nor WILL it be after this project is complete) an impenetrable barrier that will strand those residents in their own homes until they die of starvation. Denver is a fast growing city… the roads are only going to get more and more congested, because not everyone can live downtown (nor does everyone WANT to)… yet people still need to get to work.

    • beckyrep

      Surface street connectivity will actually be worse under the Central 70 plan than it is now. I invite you to get into the weeds on this; any moral and reasonably intelligent person will come to the same conclusions I have. There is no reason to ruin the north Denver communities; they could enjoy a renaissance — and so could all of north Denver — by a more humane, more cost-effective, and more rational plan: the beltway.

      • Aelwyn

        It’s a moot point. The decision has been made and the plan is moving forward, so the continued pearl-clutching and gnashing of teeth seems like wasted energy. I would point out, however, that I-70 allows residents on the east and west sides of town to reach downtown Denver (where there is a large concentration of companies — and jobs) relatively easily. This is generally the point of a freeway: to get people in the vicinity of their target destination. A beltway would instead shunt those travelers off to the periphery of the core of Denver, forcing them to further clog the already-congested surface streets to reach central locations. To reiterate two things: 1) These communities are not being displaced to the moon or walled in with no means of reaching the outside world and 2) absolutely nothing is going to improve the economic conditions or home values in those neighborhoods as long as they’re in the shadow of the Purina plant. Not to mention all that industrial/freight rail traffic. Those communities are “ruined” whether or not I-70 goes through there. Besides, regarding this “renaissance” you so naively expect would happen without this project — is that a euphemism for “influx of trendy, overpriced rental properties and hipster lounges that none of the current residents could possibly afford”? At any rate… your idealism is admirable, but might be better channeled toward something that wasn’t already a done deal.

      • Walter Crunch

        As will bike and pedestrian access. Well, it will go from worse, to far worse. It could have been fantastic as this was a blank sheet…but nope. Cars baby! Cars!

    • MT

      Street connectivity is not the only issue here, though it seems to be the only one you
      Air, water, and noise pollution are not so great for the neighborhood either.

      It’s also a multi-billion dollar investment in ensuring that as Denver grows it will remain dependent on cars and it will get more congested.

      • Aelwyn

        Have you *smelled* the stench from the Purina plant? Have you heard the noise from the freight trains rolling through that area? Have you noticed that enormous swath of industrial complexes just to the north? I-70 is the LEAST of that neighborhood’s problems. I don’t know what you folks are imagining would happen if I-70 weren’t there, but I’m reasonably certain it wouldn’t be as rosy as what you’ve got in mind.

        I get that this article is from some sort of special interest group (or CNU directly, who knows) that exists to vilify us immoral car owners, but this sort of feels like a lost cause. Not least of all because the project has already been approved and is moving forward.

        • MT

          Sorry, I can’t hear the trains or smell anything over the noise of the freeway and car exhaust.

        • Walter Crunch

          Highway noise is horrible. If you move the highway, perhaps the industrial complex will also move.

    • gojoblogo

      Humans are notoriously bad at understanding the negative implications of their actions, especially when they are some time in the future. Look at smoking as an example. Another example is choosing to live really far from where you work. Yes, it is your right to do so. It is not, however, your inalienable, god-given right to have an uninterrupted and congestion free highway from your home to your place of work. It turns out your are not the only one who wants that and those other people will be right next to you on the highway making it congested.

      You make a choice where you live far and have to drive, you have to understand that there will be consequences to that decision. If those consequences are acceptable to you, fantastic. But people can not move really far out and assume that their drive will never be difficult. It is a choice for most and people are shocked when it proves to be difficult.

      You are right though, not everyone can live downtown. That is why it is important to invest in more equitable solution to moving people between and around our neighborhoods. A $2 billion highway that will fill up in a couple years is not an equitable solution at all. Especially as it relates to tolled express lanes.

      Lastly, why should the arbitrary decision made by the State and federal government several decades ago have to continue to decide the fortunes and fate of a community that has been hurting economically and socially all that time. The “its not nice now, why should we care” attitude is one that you are able to have when you have never had a series of terrible decisions by others completely undercut your ability to prosper and live a healthy life. I doubt you would feel the same way if the state shoved the next interstate through your community and your municipality under invested in it for 50+ years. Empathy is something we should all try to exercise occasionally.

    • Walter Crunch

      Who said it was supposed to be anything but simply a healthier place for people to live?

      • beckyrep

        It won’t be healthier. Would you like your kids’ playground to be near to or on top of a highway? ?There’s a mountain of evidence of high correlation between proximity to highways, and asthma (especially for kids and elderly), heart disease, liver damage, dementia, plus hard data on actual years of life lost (3+) when people live within a third of a mile of a highway. I still can’t figure out why Colorado and Denver are hellbent to put in this poorly designed, enormously expensive, doomed-for-operational failures (below-water-table trench), community-destroying, public health-reducing monstrosity. Oh, plus the associated $300 million drainage project to be paid for through ‘fees’ (so-called to avoid TABOR). Such a convoluted way to get private investors to pony up funding for this latest public-private partnership (P3). The I-70 project is raiding the state bridge fund for the next (I think) 30+ years, too. Watch this legislative session as a new transportation tax is referred as a ballot measure, to compensate for some of this ridiculous and ethically bankrupt shell game. Watch our R-dominated state Senate will be looking to make sure that $$ is all about concrete and asphalt, instead of making sure at least a third is spent on transit / bikes / pedestrian infrastructure, mark my words. Virtually ALL progressive cities are making decisions now based on New Urbanism emphasizing human-scale connectivity, accessibility, and mobility, instead of cars, cars, and more cars.

        • Walter Crunch

          You misunderstood me. I think i70 should be ripped out. People can go i70 to 270 to i25. They will survive.

          • beckyrep

            I did misunderstand you, Walter, beg your pardon. Thank you for being s rational human being.

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