Protesters Confront Anthony Foxx About Denver’s Next Destructive Highway

Protesters outside the Mile High United Way, where Anthony Foxx met with Mayor Hancock on Tuesday. Photo: David Sachs

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently delivered a major speech about the harm that freeway projects have caused cities, especially poorer neighborhoods that lacked the political power to stop or divert them. Nevertheless, Governor John Hickenlooper and his DOT are plowing ahead with a plan to double down on the mistakes of the past by widening I-70 by four lanes through north Denver.

That’s why Denverites protested Tuesday outside a meeting between Foxx and Mayor Michael Hancock, a major political supporter of the project. Foxx was in town to discuss the city’s application for a $50 million “Smart Cities” grant. Protesters took the opportunity to confront him about the I-70 expansion that promises to generate more traffic and pollution for generations to come.

At the meeting with Hancock, a reporter asked Foxx about how the I-70 expansion, which will cut through some of Denver’s disadvantaged neighborhoods, fits with his goal of making cities fairer and more sustainable.

Foxx refrained from taking a position. “That project is obviously going through a stage of environmental reviews and our Federal Highway Administration is involved in those reviews,” he said, referring to the environmental impact statement that has to clear the feds before construction begins. “I think there are more than 900 comments that have come in… that’s a stage of this whole project that is still ongoing, so I don’t begin to prejudge the outcome.”

A spokesman for Foxx told Streetsblog that reps from his office would meet with residents who are against the project “to discuss their concerns.” According to advocates, the secretary’s office has not yet scheduled a meeting with them.

What exactly could Foxx do about the $1.7 billion I-70 widening? He oversees the FHWA, which has to certify that Colorado DOT followed protocol when it studied the effects of the project. CDOT’s justification for the widening was based on shaky, outdated traffic projections, and FHWA could decide that is grounds for rejecting the project. That would be a departure for the agency, which historically has given states the green light to build as long as they go through the motions.

U.S. DOT can also intervene on civil rights grounds, but that is no guarantee of stopping the project from getting built.

In 2012, for instance, U.S. DOT found that Wisconsin DOT’s environmental impact statement wasn’t up to snuff because it didn’t have a civil rights plan. Separately, local groups and the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued both U.S. DOT and Wisconsin DOT. A federal judge found that WisDOT violated the National Environmental Policy Act when planning the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project in Milwaukee. The judge ruled that the highway project did nothing for transit, which people of color disproportionately depend on, and ordered the state to compensate for the “disparate impact.” The project still went forward, however, but with a $13.5 million settlement for better transit service attached.

With Governor Hickenlooper now defending the project, the courts may offer the best opportunity to stop the I-70 expansion. In 2011, a federal court withheld federal funds for Wisconsin’s Highway 23, a much smaller project. This time U.S. DOT was actually defending the project after it had approved the environmental impact statement. Advocates sued based on environmental grounds — like the Sierra Club lawsuit against the I-70 widening.