Oakland Plans to Tear Down Major Freeway While Denver Keeps Expanding I-70

I-70 traffic viewed from the Purina plant on Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. Image: CDOT.
I-70 traffic viewed from the Purina plant on Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. Image: CDOT.

In a new story published in Grist, author Nathanael Johnson covers how Oakland, California is joining a growing number of cities planning to tear down urban freeways.

The move in Oakland shows that forward-thinking officials elsewhere are starting to understand something: The problems associated with mega-motorways in urban neighborhoods outweigh the benefits.

Here in Denver, activists were unable to convince elected officials like Mayor Michael Hancock and former Gov. John Hickenlooper to stop the $1.2 billion expansion of I-70. It started construction last August and is already bulldozing its way through the mostly Latino neighborhoods of Elyria, Swansea and Globeville. But some activists say it’s not too late to kill the project

Even though the highway’s expansion runs against the pro-environment and social justice values promised in Gov. Jared Polis’s campaign, he has not taken a position on the Central 70 project, according to Laurie Cipriano, his press secretary.

This means that the actions of the state’s top elected officials support the continuation of car dependency in Colorado. And as the pressures of population growth, traffic, worsening air pollution and climate change grow, their position seems especially backwards today.

But the arguments that failed to convince local officials have successfully persuaded those in 15 North American cities where freeways have already been taken down or there are plans to do so, according to the Congress for New Urbanism.

The same organization mapped 37 cities where officials halted highway expansions after construction had already started. 

In 37 cities, officials stopped urban highway expansions after construction had already started. Map: CNU

In Oakland, the I-980 freeway that cuts through the city “remains a scar on our urban fabric,” Mayor Libby Schaaf said in the Grist article. “In its place we want livable infrastructure that creates local economic opportunity, reconnects neighborhoods and connects the region.”

Johnson’s story went on to discuss the reasons why the freeway should be removed, which are similar to discussions that got nowhere in Denver:

[Freeways] pepper nearby neighborhoods with soot; they break up cities, making it harder to walk across town; they take up acres of space that could go to parks, houses, and public transit.

Then there’s the crisis of climate change. Transportation, the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases, will require an overhaul to become carbon free. That means rethinking and rebuilding every aspect of getting around, from the internal combustion engine to the roadways on which we move. Highways, after all, were made to serve machines forged and fueled by hydrocarbons.

In Colorado, the early impacts of climate change may include the bark-beetle’s decimation of many of the state’s forests and the growing frequency floods, fires and droughts.

Meanwhile, Denver hasn’t made any progress in its goal of reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips. Currently 73% of trips in Denver happen in a car with just one person. The city will fail to cut that number to 60% by next year, which is its stated goal. But but if it’s serious about reducing those trips to 50% by 2030, widening a highway is no way to get there.

And expanding I-70 will ultimately aggravate air quality problems in an area already populated with an unusually high number sick children: They already live in a neighborhoods infamous for being the most polluted zip code in America.

A rendering showing how Oakland might repurpose the land I-980 now occupies. Rendering by Groundworks Office, ConnectOAKLAND

Perhaps the dumbest reason for adding more lanes is the idea that it reduces traffic congestion. After governments widen urban freeways, we know that within two years, traffic is often just as bad as it was before, or worse

Remember the promise of the $1.67 billion I-25 T-REX expansion?

How’d that work out? 

The reason that adding more lanes doesn’t improve traffic is simple: When highways add capacity, more people end up driving. This well-known phenomenon, known as induced demand, has been proven in many studies. And the people at agencies like Colorado Department of Transportation don’t like to talk about it. According to Streetsblog USA:

Highway planners are failing to incorporate this effect into their models, said Ronald Milam, the author of a study about induced demand. “It is rare to find an induced travel analysis in most transportation infrastructure design or environmental impact analysis.” That means transportation agencies are green-lighting money for highway expansions that are destined to become congested again only a short time later.

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.

While Denver continues banging its head on the wall trying to solve traffic problems with solutions that we know won’t work, Oakland imagines a better future itself.

After the city removes I-980, it will gain 13 blocks where it could install “leafy boulevards, and affordable housing,” according to Grist. These benefits could rest above new subway lines with the capacity to quickly and efficiently transport a far greater number of people than the freeway ever could have.

Here, Unite North Metro Denver, a neighborhood association, proposed a similar alternative to the I-70 expansion. And while their activism failed, an advocate for tearing down Oakland’s freeway makes another point that applies here: This place belongs to us and we have the power to stop making the same mistakes. 

“The key thing is that this is public land,” said Chris Sensenig of ConnectOakland to Grist. “Public land is for the public good. We should be seeking to maximize the public good, not just accepting whatever happens to already be there.”

It may be hard to stop a project like I-70’s expansion. But other cities have done it. If you think elected officials should put an end to continuing the region’s addiction to cars, let them know. 

To contact Mayor Hancock, call 720-865-9000 or send an email via this web form. To contact Gov. Polis, call (303) 866-2885 or send a message via this web form.

Streetsblog Denver informs the movement for sustainable transportation and a livable city. Give $5 per month.

  • LazyReader

    They could just bury I-70.

    • TakeFive

      LOL, CDOT doesn’t have that kind of money. Thanks to all the unnecessary delay this project will cost ~35% more than it should have if timely built. But those responsible for all the delay don’t care about taxpayers unless it fits their agenda. In fact CDOT is using a P3 and tolled lanes in order to help fund the project AND to help maintain I-70 since they also struggle with finding enough money to maintain what they have.

      • LazyReader

        “Maintain what they have” Like BART’s 20 Billion dollar maintenance backlog? But they want more taxmoney to pay for line extensions to Livermore and Silicon Valley. Just do what Toronto did, Elevate the Highway and put civic infrastructure for public underneath. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8b1311ba5fbcfc6fd48bb4619f7f190483cfc0226c7969a9cd50ca36e271eda1.jpg

        • mckillio

          It might look okay but I’m pretty sure the sounds and pollution are pretty terrible.

      • mckillio

        Where are you getting this 35% number?

        • TakeFive

          Good guestimate.

          RTD spent $70 million per mile on FasTracks. Seattle just got FTA approval towards the Federal Way LRT extension that will cost $397 million per mile. Phoenix just got the same FTA approval for the South Central LRT extension at $150 million per mile. Denver is somewhere between Phoenix and Seattle.

          AGC which tracks overall construction costs has generally reported 3.5%-4% per year over the last ten years. Compounding puts that over 40%. Next year will see a jump in costs. Gas at the pump has gone up 30% in the last few months. While crude oil hasn’t gone up that much it has also gone up. Crude oil costs and their derivatives impact construction in many ways. Costs of construction downtown have are up significantly. Labor, industrial metals, land, fuel, it all adds up. If anything my 35% figure is low.

          • mckillio

            But we’re talking about a highway, there’s no way the cost has gone up that much in a few years. Maybe 20%

          • TakeFive

            U.S. 36 cost ~$62 million per mile for the P3 project
            South Mountain freeway: 22 miles of built from scratch 8 lanes of new freeway opening this year will cost $90 million per mile. At that cost Central 70 should have cost $900 million. Six of the miles are easy/cheap, 4 miles more costly. Original estimates were in the $800-850 million range. At a cost of $1.3 billion that’s an increase of 52% – but believe what you wish.

          • mckillio

            But I70 is four lanes not three and is getting a tunnel and below grade sections so it should cost more.

          • TakeFive

            Actually I-70 will be ten lanes and the number of lanes miles makes a difference but it’s more the number of bridges and interchanges that add cost. CDOT has to remove the viaducts and dig a trench so there’s cost for that. But from Colorado Blvd to Chambers I think they’re only redoing one bridge. The costs between Brighton and Colorado will be where all the money is spent. Rather than tunneling they’re building the equivalent of a few bridges back to back and instead of roadway it will be a park.

            From the bottom, post-recession costs until now most construction has virtually doubled in price. With respect to private development they have software that projects whether Denver’s tech bros will pay enough to make the project pencil. Denver’s costs aren’t through-the-roof like in Seattle but they have gone up at least 50% or more for even basic things like roadways, at least from the bottom.

      • George Joseph Lane

        Perhaps if the highway is so expensive to maintain it should be changed to a surface level boulevard to reduce costs and the surplus land could be sold to provide tax income.

        • TakeFive

          Expensive? All infrastructure needs to be maintained. Were you aware the City/County of Denver had over $100 million backlog in deferred road maintenance prior to passage of the Elevate Denver Bonds? Welcome to the real world.

          • George Joseph Lane

            Yes, all infrastructure needs to be maintained. “Welcome to the real world”, where highways are more expensive to maintain. If Denver already has/had that much of a backlog then reducing maintenance costs should be a priority.

          • TakeFive

            That talking point is so shallow and silly. For starters I referenced roads; you referenced highways. Highways are roads too but not all roads are highways. 🙂

            But feel free to convince a majority of taxpaying voters that roads should be converted to green grass or whatever you fancy.

    • mckillio

      Definitely not.

  • TakeFive

    Eh, I won’t look for another gif of a dead horse to beat but context is everthing.

    When I-70 was built it didn’t go through any urban areas although that option was considered. Instead it went through an industrial area. Speaking of industrial have you noticed all the industrial uses along I-70 (now more to the east). I-70 is one of the original east-west interstate corridors intended for movement of goods and services. That’s not true of any of the examples you provide.

    The biggest obstacle is that I-70 does not belong to Denver; it’s owned by the state/CDOT. Not only Denver but the whole metro area and state rely on I-70 for efficient movement of freight. The Western Slope including ski resorts are highly dependent on I-70. Sorry, but a few malcontents against the whole metro area and state is a losing cause.

    • mckillio

      It also went through a residential area and surprise, they were mostly lower class immigrants.

      With the reroute option vehicles can take that or get on the boulevard. There’s really no reason not to do it.

      • TakeFive

        TREX went through a residential area too and surprise, it goes through Wash Park, DU etc plus Greenwood Village and nearby Cherry Hills Village and Lone Tree. C-470 goes through So Arapahoe Co and Highlands Ranch. U.S. 36 goes through Broomfield and Boulder.

        Obviously a liberal conspiracy in the context of the 2000’s is much more fun than the context of the 1950’s when I-70 was built. It’s more typical than not for freeways to go through industrial areas and in the 1950’s that’s exactly what I-70 did.

        • mckillio

          But I25 was already there wasn’t it? And they built it below ground and we were still stupid about highways then.

          • TakeFive

            That’s fair. IIRC the enabling legislation was passed in the 1940’s the interstate system planned in the 1950’s and built over time. Originally, I-70 was to end in downtown Denver and not go through the mountains. Imagine that… I lived in Aspen in the 1970’s and much of it was still being built.

            Certainly, Aspen and the Western Slope were much more bucolic at the time – but then so was Denver. In 1970, shortly after I arrived, the population of the whole state was 2.2 million. Numbers released in the last week now have metro Denver with a population of over 2.9 million. Bucolic is harder to find but many areas not along I-70 in the Western Slope would still qualify.

    • George Joseph Lane

      “I-70 is one of the original east-west interstate corridors intended for movement of goods and services. ”

      So what? Eisenhower is dead, it doesn’t matter if we upset him by shifting a highway designation 2 miles north.

      • TakeFive

        With the most liberal state legislature in my memory they’ve yet to show any interest. But perhaps with your quick wit you could make an ‘earth-moving’ impression. Bring a couple $billion with you and I guarantee you won’t be ignored. There’s still a week left in this year’s session so no time to waste.

  • TM

    Great article. Anyone in favor of keeping I-70 in this location or expanding it is our of their minds. Highway expansion is climate denial. Air pollution is killing people. Car crashes are killing people. Shrugging off the decades of harm to these neighborhoods as a few complainers is cruel and disgusting.
    There are endless of pathetic excuses for keeping it there. Garbage about commerce and goods and services. Simple minds that are too lazy to care about things that really matter. Trucks will still get where they are going. Congestion pricing on highways would do more to ensure freight traffic gets through than highway expansion ever could. Long distance freight would be better off on rail. Local trips should be shifting to safer, cleaner modes, and freeing up urban land for homes and businesses is a big part of making that happen.
    We’ve got a new governor who claims to want to deal with pollution and climate change, he has the power to change this project. A few whiny people that commute to and from Aurora every day shouldn’t be able to shout down the valid concerns of the people whose homes they drive by every day, the health of every person in this city when our air and water are filthy, and the catastrophic damage we’re already seeing from climate change. If we care about any of those things it it our responsibility to do our part and tear down this highway.

  • Kevin Withers

    Much ado about nothing, as the 980 freeway in Oakland isn’t going to be torn down. It’s simply a PR wet dream of a group of local developers. Every two years, CNU posts it’s list and it gets another 15 minutes of fame.

    Will. Never. Happen.

    Move along folks, nothing to see here.

    • TM

      Funny how “developers” are framed as evil but no one ever thinks about the companies that make far more money building highways. The same companies build traffic models that predict more traffic then do engineering design and construction of the highways they said needed to be built.
      The demand for housing is real. All people need homes, and we can see that our supply is lagging behind that demand as prices continue to rise. The demand for car travel is a forecast into the future by a computer model. That model is based on a LOT of assumptions mainly that everything will stay the same as it is now, sprawl will continue, gas prices will never rise, transit will never improve, walking and biking conditions will never improve, land use patterns that support other modes will never change. When the road builders tell you we need to build more roads, we need to think a little harder about whether we really need them.

      • Kevin Withers

        Not sure what triggered you, but developers are not evil. They just have an agenda. If you read the Grist report, you’ll learn that the area wasn’t against the highway when built, (completed in 1985) and used it for neighborhood opportunity. The problem is sjw’s coming along today, trying to frame past actions as a mistake that needs correcting. I-980 is regional, is state owned, and not under the auspices of Oakland, despite the Mayors PR move to want to ‘study’ the issue.

        • TM

          “wet dream of a group of local developers”
          That’s why I wrote about developers.

          Though using the tern triggered so haphazardly and calling people SJWs shows what kind of person you are. Not one worth my time.

          • Kevin Withers

            Snowflake. Got it.

          • TM

            Asshole. Thanks for proving my point.

          • Kevin Withers

            De nada. I’ve worked for developers my entire career, no judgement being made, but hold no illusions either. Discussions do have opposing perspectives. Your position is by no means sacrosanct…

          • TM

            No, your SJW and snowflake comments are a specific kind of asshole, one that isn’t worth talking to.

  • Denverdant

    Your headline is misleading. Please read the Grist article you cite. It does not say that Oakland is planning to tear down a portion of an interstate highway that is running through it. It merely says that officials in Oakland are talking about how they would like to do so. Generally speaking, interstate highways are joint projects between the federal government and states. Cities on their own can’t tear them down, just like cities (like Denver) don’t have a veto when a state department of transportation (like CDOT) decides to reconstruct one that is already in place. Perhaps Oakland will persuade the U.S. and California departments of transportation to tear this one down; perhaps not. It hasn’t happened yet.

  • internetpoints

    Ship has sailed. I wish they had more completely studied the 76/270 reroute of i70 – not that I think that’s entirely feasible, but I’d like to see the full study. Shame they’re adding lanes, but the current rusty viaduct is clearly unsafe so something had to be done.

    I think effort going forward would be better spent lobbying to reign in Aerotropolis development. That whole idea is a hellscape of sprawl.

  • LazyReader

    Why don’t they just elevate the I-70 and turn what’s under neath it into a park. That’s what they did in Toronto …

  • Camera_Shy

    “A tree-lined boulevard” – is nothing better than what we have already, IMO.

    But I assume this is what will happen, see “the Big Dig.” A park was originally planned to cover over that freeway burial, but as I recall they now have a second freeway (the original?) over the top.

    • mckillio

      It would be much better. We’d have a thoroughfare for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers. And land would be freed up to go back to private ownership.

  • NewHampshire

    This is patently ABSURD! A few people in a private group like ‘Congress for the New Urbanism’ which was founded by a Cuban Commie, should not have this much influence in city affairs.

  • Richard Bullington

    Sixty-five years ago, when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided, us whaaht folks made a beeline for the ‘burbs. Since that day we’ve been dedicated to fucking the cities on which our economic well-being depends.

    That’s what this is all about: suburbanites driving over the rights and lives of city dwellers.


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