Elyria, Swansea Residents Tell CDOT: I-70 Widening Is a Nightmare

Local residents said the highway widening project "is intent on making us invisible." Photo: David Sachs
Local residents said the highway widening project "is intent on making us invisible." Photo: David Sachs

Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville residents have a message for the Colorado Department of Transportation, Governor John Hickenlooper, and Mayor Michael Hancock: After being marginalized for decades, they won’t stand for a wider I-70 getting rammed through their neighborhoods.

About 75 people dug their heels in Thursday night at a community center in Swansea. After plenty of public hearings that went according to CDOT’s script, they wanted to wrest control of the conversation from CDOT and the City and County of Denver.

One of the most outspoken residents against the plan to dig a 40-foot trench and widen the freeway by four lanes is Anthony Lovato, a third-generation Swansea native who now lives in Globeville. Lovato also happens to be a CDOT engineer.

Lovato fearlessly spoke out as a private citizen. “I am a CDOT employee, but I don’t speak for CDOT. I don’t represent CDOT,” he said. “But I’m totally against this. I’m against the ditch.”

Lovato’s mother still lives in Swansea, but his father died of cancer at 59. He questioned whether the air and soil pollution spawned by the city’s historical neglect of the neighborhoods led to his dad’s early death. Lovato also shared his professional opinion about tripling the size of a road that has divided the mostly Latino, working class neighborhood from the rest of Denver since the 1960s.

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Homes along I-70 bear the brunt of its pollution. Image: Denver Department of Environment Health

“From my perspective… this is an engineering nightmare,” he said. “This is a construction nightmare. The people that are working on this don’t want to be working on it. That’s how bad it is. Nobody’s excited about this project. You can talk to other CDOT employees, they’re not gonna tell you they’re excited about this. It’s a nightmare.”

Opposition to the I-70 project is gaining momentum. Earlier this year, the Federal Highway Administration delayed its decision on the project following an air quality lawsuit. Neighborhoods to the south are suing the city over a drainage project tied to the road expansion. Most recently, a coalition of north Denver neighborhood organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

These wins have CDOT running scared, said community advocate Candi CdeBaca.

“We need to fight to shape the community we want to raise our kids in, and we have momentum,” CdeBaca said. “We have power. They’re afraid of us right now. They’re worried… We have power right now and we cannot afford to miss this opportunity to act.”

CdeBaca’s goal is to rally community voices to overcome the perception that widening I-70 is a done deal, which CDOT has tried to cement. She and other residents ran down many reasons why expanding the freeway will be detrimental to north Denver and the city as a whole. Displacement of at least 74 homes and businesses topped that list. (That’s the official CDOT number, but advocates say the agency has lowballed it.)

There’s also the basic fact that more lanes will generate more traffic, and more traffic will lodge more shards of particulate matter in the lungs of kids who go to school near the freeway. Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea residents already “experience a higher incidence of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and asthma than other Denver neighborhoods,” according to the Office of Environmental Health [PDF]. If the expansion goes through, they’d literally play on top of the freeway.

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The cap, which will cover a few blocks of a 10-mile expansion, will allow kids to play on top of the freeway instead of next to it. Image: CDOT

Then there’s the terrible legacy of urban freeways, shoved through low-income communities, immigrant neighborhoods, and communities of color in the 1950s and 60s. These highways caused deep physical and social divisions that continue to affect neighborhoods today. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called for cities to mend freeway scars earlier this year — but Denver is poised to make this one worse.

“This I-70 highway… is intent on making us invisible,” said Swansea resident Brent Adams. “This is one other step in the long history where poor, working class people, immigrant, people of color are asked to fulfill the dreams of politicians and businessmen. We need the highway to be moved so that we can be included, so that we can be seen, so that children growing up feel like they’re a part of Denver.”

Advocates want to see the highway rerouted north through Adams County along I-270 and I-76, which they say CDOT has never seriously considered. There are fewer homes on that stretch within 500 feet of the roadway — just one for every 21 homes along I-70, according to advocates. A tree-lined boulevard would replace the stretch of I-70 through north Denver.

“What this alternative says is, “Why can’t we have a 6th Avenue? Why can’t we have a 17th? Why can’t we have nice things?” CdeBaca said. “This alternative proposes something that is nice. Something that will undo the harm that was done when I-70 was put in this neighborhood.”