North Denver Residents Make CDOT Director Bhatt Answer for I-70 Expansion

Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville residents speak out against the widening of I-70. They wore bandannas to symbolize the air pollution the project will cause. Photo: David Sachs
Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville residents speak out against the widening of I-70. They wore bandannas to symbolize the air pollution the project will cause. Photo: David Sachs

It was supposed to be Colorado DOT’s meeting about its plan to gouge a wider I-70 through Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville. But residents from those neighborhoods would not let CDOT control the message.

Thursday night at Swansea Recreation Center, opponents of the highway expansion took over the open house, wearing black bandanas over their faces to symbolize the additional pollution they’d breathe should CDOT dig a trench in contaminated soil.

“Do what’s moral, not what’s legal!” urged Rey Gz, a member of the Cross Community Coalition that’s fighting the project. CDOT agreed to cancel the scheduled topic and let residents question CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt for the next 90 minutes.

CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt at Thursday's meeting. Photo: David Sachs
CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt at Thursday’s meeting. Photo: David Sachs

Face to face with Bhatt, locals made their case for CDOT to abandon its plan to spend $1.7 billion widening a freeway that has disconnected and polluted neighborhoods since the 1960s. (CDOT says it costs $1.2 billion, but this figure accounts only for “phase one.”)

More lanes induce traffic, they said. We’re being displaced, they said. Residents already endure higher rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease compared to other parts of the city, they said.

Bhatt ran down the list of mitigations CDOT will pursue — the park that will be built over a small section of the highway trench, payments to residents who will lose their homes. But he never contested the premise that the I-70 expansion is fundamentally harmful.

Instead, he mainly argued that CDOT is following the rules. Environmental concerns are “absolutely grounds for you to tell the Sierra Club or whomever else to sue us on that,” said Bhatt. “I’m doing what is required. We are following federal law, we are following the National Environmental Protection Act.”

Residents want CDOT to complete a comprehensive study of tearing down the current I-70 viaduct, rerouting I-70, and restoring the original street grid to prioritize walking and biking instead of high-speed car trips.

Bhatt insisted the courts would sort things out, and said his agency would not study the reroute unless forced to under the law. Candi CdeBaca, head of the Cross Community Coalition, said another lawsuit was in the works (in addition the one filed last year by the Sierra Club and community members).

Paris Ferribee, a Five Points resident and student at CU Boulder, went head to head with Bhatt. “[Federal approval] doesn’t force you to follow through with the project,” Ferribee said. “It is literally permission, as if I’m getting permission from my mom to go to the club. I have the decision to go or not, but I choose not to because it’s snowing outside.”

Significantly, Colorado Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, who represents the area, was at the meeting. Duran plays a large role in negotiations over the allocation of CDOT funding, should voters approve a ballot measure in November.

“Perhaps there’s a need for new conversations with Adams County leaders,” Duran said about the reroute option. “We need to organize our roads in a way so it’s not just focused on moving cars down the street, but it’s focused on moving people, and that we’re combating air pollution, and that we’re combating climate change, and that we’re coming up with a variety of different options for everyone who lives here to make sure that our community continues to be a great place to live and raise a family.”

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

Protesters were galvanized by a Denver Post article published the same day that said their neighborhoods comprise the most polluted ZIP code in the country. They also scoffed at what they called a condescending letter posted by Bhatt on Facebook, along with a cheery video about the project. In the statement, he claims the opposition consisted of “a small group of about 60-70 people.”

The Ditch the I-70 Ditch Facebook page, which has been instrumental in the movement against the I-70 widening, has 3,428 members. “I don’t know any of my neighbors that support this project,” said Elyria resident Drew Dutcher. “Many are opposed, but most have just given up.” Just one person spoke in favor of the project Thursday night.

“They are selecting the private contractor for this project right now, and whichever contractor gets the deal, they better be prepared to lose time, money, and credibility because we are here to resist by any means necessary,” CdeBaca said.