Hickenlooper on I-70 Boondoggle: “Maybe My Facts Are Out of Date”

Governor John Hickenlooper can still stop the I-70 widening leave Denver a legacy of stronger neighborhoods instead of more traffic and pollution.

Yesterday Governor John Hickenlooper went on Colorado Public Radio for his monthly interview with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. Hickenlooper answered various questions on various subjects, and it was going smoothly until Warner asked the governor about his transportation department’s plan to widen I-70 through north Denver. Hickenlooper was all over the map.

In the end, Hickenlooper tepidly endorsed the highway widening, but it was far from the rosy line his communications office handed Streetsblog. The governor is still trying to distance himself from the project, which he is clearly not comfortable discussing.

Here’s the relevant part of the interview. You can also stream it on CPR (the I-70 portion starts at 15:50):

Ryan Warner: I want to get you on the record. Has CDOT taken the right approach with this?

Governor Hickenlooper: So I think that this is one of those issues — and it dates back to before when I was governor — I was still mayor. We were looking at alternatives and what would be the real cost. And I think we somehow have moved away from getting at what the facts were. What maybe is needed is to have a one day charette, and let’s get everyone involved…

Can I get you on the record first? Do you like CDOT’s approach?

Well in terms of the approach I think the solution is probably the right solution. I spoke yesterday at City Club, and one of the questions was on this very issue. And it struck me that maybe my facts are out of date. There might be new facts that the people against the solution have come up with. Usually when people get so conflicted and there’s an adversarial conflict between two sides, it’s often a good idea to sit down and first think, “Let’s revisit what the real facts are. And let’s debate the facts before we get into policy.

So the fact is, [Colorado DOT] would like to bury I-70 and put a lid on it. Do you like that approach?

So how much does it cost? If you do the alternative up to the north, how much would that cost?

That seems like a question for you to answer as the state’s chief executive. 

No, no, no, no, no. You’re the media, you’re coming out and telling me to take a side…

Well I’m asking you to take a position on something your agency is doing and will spend millions of dollars doing. 

So my point is there are a bunch of different costs depending on how much traffic is already there, which people disagree on. At the lunch yesterday people had no common idea on how congested that northern route already is. You’re gonna have to use eminent domain and use large swaths of land from private landowners…

So what is your basic understanding of the facts? Give us your top line and do you like CDOT’s approach?

Sure, so my sense is that this process — and it’s gone on so long, that’s why I think it would be good to revisit, make sure none of these facts have changed — but that the northern alternative would require so much additional land to be acquired, and not only would you have a longer route, but you would end up having a dramatic increase in cost, and really not solve congestion the way you would if you had the existing system.

As the former mayor, Hickenlooper should know better. The quest to solve congestion by widening roads is doomed to fail and only harms cities in the process, pumping more traffic onto local streets and pollution into the air.

The governor also repeats CDOT’s claim that replacing I-70 with a connected street grid in north Denver would cost twice as much as expanding the highway by four lanes, digging a 40-foot trench, and placing a park on top. Like a lot of CDOT numbers, this one doesn’t add up — advocates have pointed out that the agency’s cost estimates for rerouting I-70 along I-270/I-76 appear to be grossly inflated [PDF].

When Hickenlooper says “there might be new facts,” he’s presumably referring to Colorado DOT’s use of traffic data from the 1990s to justify the I-70 widening. If you squint, he might be opening the door to a reassessment of the project. Admitting you may be wrong is the first step to getting things right.

If Hickenlooper really is having second thoughts about the I-70 widening and the damage it will do to Denver, he’ll need to assert himself more forcefully, and soon. It’s not too late to stop this project from scarring neighborhoods for decades, but it’s getting close.