Report: Expanding I-70, One of Nation’s Worst Urban Freeways, Is out of Step With Polis’ Goals

This Interstate 70 viaduct cuts through the Denver neighborhoods of Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville. It will be torn down expanded to a 14-lane sunken freeway. Photo: CDOT.
This Interstate 70 viaduct cuts through the Denver neighborhoods of Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville. It will be torn down expanded to a 14-lane sunken freeway. Photo: CDOT.

A new report calls for the removal of America’s 10 worst urban highways, including Interstate 70 through Denver’s mostly Latino neighborhoods of Elyria, Swansea and Globeville. 

The Colorado Department of Transportation will tear down the freeway soon, but under the leadership of Gov. Jared Polis, it will be rebuilt and expanded in a way that will kick out minorities from their homes, force elementary school students to breathe heavily polluted air and add pollution to an area already known for having the worst air quality in America.

These problems are highlighted in Freeways Without Futures, a report released today from the Congress for New Urbanism, an organization based in Washington D.C. Local activists see the report as a chance to renew their calls to stop the project — especially after electing Polis, who campaigned on cutting vehicle emissions and increasing mass transit.

“It’s a great opportunity to reopen the conversation,” said Brad Evans, who leads the Ditch the Ditch organization, which opposes the project and holds some hope the it can still be stopped.

A rendering of the 14-lane sunken freeway with a park and soccer fields placed on top. Image: CDOT.
A rendering of the 14-lane sunken freeway with a park and soccer fields placed on top. Image: CDOT.

The $1.2 billion Central 70 Project will remove the 55-year-old viaduct that cuts through the Elyria, Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods, replacing it with a sunken freeway whose 14 lanes will measure almost three times wider than the current highway. A park and soccer field will cover part of the freeway, despite an expected increase pollution in an area already afflicted with frequent air quality warnings that urge people to avoid physical activity.

Advocates for sustainable transportation offer several reasons for removing freeways in urban areas. They point to cities where doing so helped to heal communities once divided by massive infrastructure, traffic fatality reductions and air quality improvements. Removing highways also doesn’t cause the apocalyptic traffic situations many might expect. And that’s not the only transportation planning concept that’s counterintuitive.  

One of the selling points of the I-70 expansion is a promise to cut the amount of time people are stuck in traffic through “minimized future congestion,” according to CDOT’s website for the project.

But traffic often gets worse after highway expansions, a phenomenon known as induced demand, which state transportation planners often fail to consider, according to Ronald Milam, the author of a 2017 paper on the subject published in Transportation Research Record.

Although the term “induced demand” sounds academic, just ask Los Angeles residents how things turned out after the $1.6 billion expansion of Interstate 405.

Widening the freeway increased its capacity somewhat, but two years after it opened in 2014, congestion got worse than it was before during the rush hours of 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., according to a report by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

A part of the 10.2 mile Central 70 Project, the lowered freeway cuts through the Latino neighborhoods of Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville. Image: CDOT.
A part of the 10.2 mile Central 70 Project, the lowered freeway, cuts through the Latino neighborhoods of Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville. Image: CDOT.

The CNU report also suggests looking at the 15 cities in North America that have removed or committed to removing urban freeways. When urban highways have been torn down, traffic disasters have not followed.

A recent example happened in January when Seattle shut down Highway 99, which carried 90,000 cars into the city per day. But after the closure, commute times barely budged, leaving a Seattle Times reporter asking, “Where did they all go?

The community organization Unite North Metro Denver proposed an alternative to the highway: A tree-lined boulevard, that would "re-establish the community grid, free up land for development, and raise property values," according to CNU.
The community organization Unite North Metro Denver proposed an alternative to the highway: A tree-lined boulevard, that would “re-establish the community grid, free up land for development, and raise property values,” according to CNU.

Removing freeways also helps cities heal from the division and blight brought about by massive highways, like after San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway came down following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“Boulevards replaced the freeways instead, opening up the waterfront and uniting neighborhoods in the City by the Bay,” says the report.

Back in Elyria, Swansea and Globeville, the I-70 expansion broke ground in August and Evans fears it may be too late to stop the project. But he holds some hope, pointing to the revered urban advocate Jane Jacobs, who led a movement in the 1950s and ‘60s that stopped construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway through New York City.

“They were under construction on that midtown freeway,” he said.  

The CNU report suggests an alternative to widening I-70, too, which the community group Unite North Metro Denver proposed. It offers a tree-lined boulevard that would reconnect divided communities, open up land for development and raise property values. Or as the Brookings Institution suggested recently, “stop trying to solve traffic and start building great places.”

If not, Evans asked: “Are we just going to widen our way to more roads — that need more, wider roads?” 

Gov. Polis’ press office was not able to respond to a request for comment in time for publication of this story.


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  • LazyReader

    Burying I-70 is a good step, more expensive but 14 lanes is excessive. 10 lanes under. Boulevard and parks above it.

    • TakeFive

      A link to the Central 70 project is provided and that site says:

      This project will include: The addition of one new Express Lane in each direction from I-25 to Chambers Road.

      I believe that adds up to 10 lanes.

      • TM

        Doesn’t Phoenix have one of the worst safety records in the country? Is that a place we should try to emulate?

        • TM

          Just had to check, yeah, Phoenix is bad. I do not want to be like Phoenix.

          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/589e23c7831c071052936a916fcd9b9deb7a65ec7f29b7f6bba885959ffcbed7.png

        • TakeFive

          Some other time we can talk about the difference between freeways and streets and how different Phoenix is from Denver. Denver is certainly elitist compared to Phoenix. I happen to enjoy the great diversity but that also comes with a full spectrum of issues including higher poverty rates.

          • TM

            Nothing to do with diversity or poverty or whatever you’re talking about here. Diversity is good. Freeways are bad.
            More freeways = more driving = more people dying

            Very probably most of those deaths happen on surface streets, not freeways themselves, but the traffic from the freeways has to get off somewhere. They lead to a more sprawling development pattern that leads to more driving, and leads to those surface streets being designed more like highways and less like streets.

            Some other time I’ll plot out urban freeway lane miles vs traffic fatalities for cities.

          • TakeFive

            Phoenix metro taxpayers vote on what they want and along with Seattle they have a well-funded highly regarded transportation system but since you’re primarily concerned with Denver please do get taxpayers to do and fund whatever you wish for.

          • TM

            Phoenix taxpayers voted for a transportation system that will kill over 200 of them every year and Seattle chose one that will kill 20.

            Citizens of Phoenix then are either suicidal or incredibly stupid.

          • TakeFive

            Dang, you keep talking about streets. I’m not promoting nor defending streets in Phoenix. But since your so street-savvy tell me about streets in Scottsdale, Gilbert and Chandler. If you need to be reminded I was referring to the metro’s freeway system.

          • TM

            More freeways = more driving = more traffic on streets = streets designed to handle more cars = more people killed on streets.

            Putting more money into freeways will lead to more people getting killed.

            Seattle is doing a lot of good things and it shows. What Phoenix is doing is getting a lot of people killed.

          • TakeFive

            City of Phoenix =/= metro Phoenix. Same in Denver. Streets and ‘people killed’ not in Phoenix very different from City of. In any case freeways are a very different topic but everyone can believe as they wish.

          • TM

            200+ people killed in the city of Phoenix every year.

            Hey look, a conveniently timed article on just how bad the streets of Phoenix are.
            https://www.azcentral.com/in-depth/news/local/arizona-investigations/2019/04/01/pedestrian-deaths-phoenix-slow-fix-areas-where-walkers-dying/3009674002/

          • TakeFive

            So… do you find pleasure in this bcuz it’s not Denver?

            I/we blog about this on the SkyscraperPage Forum Phoenix Transportation Thread. ABC15 has an ongoing series entitled Operation Safe Roads; would you like the link since you’re so interested in Phoenix now? You’re welcome to join the thread and add you wisdom.

            Interestingly, the more upscale cities have much nicer ‘complete streets’ than either Phoenix or Denver.

          • TM

            I find it horrifying. The point is you claim Phoenix has a great transportation system and I don’t think a system that kills that many people is in any way great. I would never use Phoenix as an example of a good way to do things.

          • TakeFive

            Last time: there’s a significant difference between Phoenix city streets and the metro freeway system. Sorry you can’t grasp this but Oh Well.

          • TM

            Sorry you can’t grasp that a transportation system based on freeways will affect the surface streets as well. There will be more car traffic on those streets, they will be designed to higher capacity and higher speeds and kill more people.
            And we’re not just talking about pedestrian deaths, but Phoenix ranks really badly in that category, so it’s safe to say it’s streets are badly designed.

            You’re pretty defensive of Phoenix, it’s nothing personal. It’s just a city that has chosen to base its transportation on cars and consequently kills a lot more people than a city like Seattle that invests more in transit. I would not follow Phoenix’s example because I want fewer people to be killed.

          • TakeFive

            Good News: I found something much more (historically) important about Denver than our circular, pointless blathering. http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=8534865#post8534865

          • TM

            Building near transit lines certainly is much more attractive than near freeways.

            I’m just pointing out that the transportation system in Phoenix you claim is “highly regarded” kills over 200 people a year and therefore I wouldn’t want to model anything we do after it.

            Defending it certainly is pointless.

          • TM

            Don’t know what you’re hangup about things being “upscale” or calling Denver “elitist” is. Safe city streets have nothing to do with that.
            Building car infrastructure is insanely expensive, just because it looks shitty doesn’t mean an ton of money wasn’t sunk into it.

          • TakeFive

            I appreciate that you have a lack of understanding of metro Phoenix and how it can vary from city to city; it’s obvious.

          • TM

            If you have a point I suggest you make it.

      • gojoblogo

        I would never say the viaducts were nice, but we talk about this cut solution as something new. In fact, we talk about widening a freeway and putting it below grade as an experiment that we are testing. We have had this for years! 1-25 between Lincoln and University is a widened and lowered freeway and it is a consistent disaster. It is great evidence for induced demand and that widening does not solve congestion. I would also argue that it does not feel like it unites the neighborhoods north and south of it.

        • mckillio

          I mostly agree with you but without all streets being able to go over it, it will never be/feel as connected. The cover like for 70 is the only way to really connect the two sides, as long as we’re having a highway.

        • TM

          Agree about it not uniting the neighborhoods. There are lots of cool places on South Pearl that I almost never go to because I don’t want to cross the I-25 ditch on foot or on bike which is how I get around most of the time.

        • TakeFive

          Given that the identical below grade freeway with deck park has existed for 28 years in Phoenix, yeah, it’s hardly new. Let’s just say that’s one very long experiment.

          I don’t mean to interrupt a good theory rant but ‘street level’ basics can explain a lot. Decades ago demographers predicted urban growth along the front range especially from Colo Springs up to Fort Collins. Since I-25 is the primary freeway it carries this burden of long predicted growth. Additionally the SE Corridor has forever been the favored part of the metro area from University to Lincoln. Breaking News: it wasn’t the freeway’s fault that the extended DTC area was built nearby to Cherry Hills Village and Greenwood Village etc.

      • TM

        Of course the viaducts are only disgusting because of the car traffic on them. Otherwise they would just be cement columns and some shade from the summer sun.
        The ditch will be just as disgusting because it will be filled with even more cars and their noise and exhaust.
        It’s the cars that are disgusting.

        • TakeFive
          • TM

            What they are planning in Denver looks nothing like that.
            The “cover” is two blocks long. The other 10 miles of freeway will look like this.

            And even if part of it is hidden, it still dumps the same amount of traffic onto the streets, still promotes driving, still promotes sprawl, still generates the same amount of pollution, and will still kill the same number of people.
            That’s a lovely little bandaid you’ve got there, hasn’t prevented any of your yearly 200 deaths though.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7d224740eb7f627ebdc76db1f0475106e1c1addd5646fc28393b0f8afee2ff17.jpg

          • TM
          • TakeFive

            Yeah, Denver’s deck park will only be 4 acres while the Margaret T Hance Park is 32 acres. lol Too bad the freeway costs went up so much from all the unnecessary delay, delay. Reap what you sow.

          • TM

            You’re trying to say the deck would have been bigger if residents hadn’t fought back? Bullshit. It wouldn’t have existed at all. Original plan was to rebuild the viaduct even bigger. The below grade option is only happening because people fought back. The deck is only happening because people fought back. It isn’t bigger because if it were any longer it would have required ventilation which would have cost more.

            Freeways are trash, stop defending them.

  • TakeFive

    It’s amazing how stubborn less than one-tenth of those who will benefit from Central 70 can be.

    https://media.giphy.com/media/RL0xU1daTlMoE/giphy.gif

  • mckillio

    It’s not going to happen but we can dream.

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  • LazyReader

    Bury all Interstates in neighborhood communities or build frontage roads.

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  • Kevin Withers

    “Local activists see the report as a chance to renew their calls to stop the project “….
    CNU report is regurgitated every two years, and reflects the wet dream of a minority group who enjoy contemplating juvenile fiction. Their oft quoted examples of previously removed freeways is inapplicable, as those choices involved other decision logic, not reflecting choice.

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