Hickenlooper on I-70: A Wider Highway Will Be Good for Your Health

Even as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx calls on state officials to mend the scars left by urban highways in the 1950s and 60s, Governor John Hickenlooper is recycling 60-year-old talking points to justify making the I-70 scar even wider in north Denver.

Governor John Hickenlooper thinks the billion-dollar I-70 boondoggle will be money well spent.

Streetsblog NYC’s David Meyer got a few minutes with the governor while he was in New York on Friday for the Regional Plan Association’s annual assembly. Ironically, RPA selected Hickenlooper to deliver a keynote due to the “bold example” he supposedly set on sustainability issues in Colorado.

In the interview with Streetsblog, Hickenlooper called a wider, 10-lane I-70 a “basic minimum level of road capacity.” He also claimed that contrary to decades of experience with road expansion projects, the I-70 widening won’t induce more traffic.

“[More lanes] lead to more congestion if you don’t augment them with transit, and that’s the big difference,” Hickenlooper said, referring to new regional rail lines. “So we are committed to transit, but you know, what will happen is, if we don’t add capacity in that east-west 1-70 [corridor], we’re really going to strangle — already we’re seeing people driving through the neighborhoods. Getting off the interstates. They’ve got to get somewhere, and they’re going through the neighborhoods.”

That’s exactly how 1950s highway planners justified road projects that devastated cities. But as Hickenlooper learned long ago, wider highways don’t fix traffic. They induce more. And those drivers don’t stay on the highway for their entire trip — they begin and end on local streets.

If Hickenlooper makes I-70 wider, it will carry more cars, and more people — not fewer — will drive through the neighborhoods that I-70 slices through on their way to and from the freeway.

Hickenlooper also claimed that creating more space for cars will somehow decrease pollution. “So you want to be able to handle your rush hours, and if you can get a little bit of transit with rush hours and then you get your road capacity just down a little bit, then the traffic moves and the pollution is much, much lower,” he said.

Again, this is the same argument planners were making 60 years ago. In real life, the fantasy of wider, free-flowing highways reducing pollution turned out to be wishful thinking, as more cars filled the bigger roads, spewing more toxins and greenhouse gases into the air. That’s one reason the Sierra Club and local residents have filed suit against the I-70 project in federal court.

“You have to try to get all the facts, and really be objective,” Hickenlooper told Streetsblog. So when Colorado DOT uses outdated traffic models to justify the I-70 project, is that being “objective”?

Hickenlooper also rejected the idea of rerouting I-70 through less populated areas and restoring north Denver’s original street grid. “Our suburban neighbors would go nuts,” he said. “They would fight it tooth and nail.” Many Denver residents are fighting the I-70 project tooth and nail, though, and he’s not listening to them.