State highway won’t be off Grand Avenue soon
“My guess is that the vast majority of drivers just want to get through our town as quickly as possible.”
-Mike Bennett, publisher, Glenwood Springs Post Independent
This struck me as an odd comment for a publisher of a local newspaper to make. It is especially puzzling since the town Mike Bennett referred to was named, by Smithsonian Magazine, as one of the top 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013. Granted, 2013 has come and gone, but the reasons that folks want to come, stop, and stay Glenwood Springs are still here. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the 20 towns chosen, with population less than 15,000, “boast heartwarming settings where the air is a little fresher, the grass greener, the pace gentler than in metropolitan America. Generally, they’re devoted to preserving their historic centers, encouraging talent and supporting careful economic growth. There’s usually an institution of higher learning, too.” That sounds like Glenwood Springs to me! For many, Glenwood Springs IS the destination.
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But let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
Dreams Versus Reality
Is there anyone in Glenwood who would not like to see a more Mayberry-esque Grand Avenue? We would love to be able to give a shout to a friend across Grand Avenue and ask, “How’s the family?” It would be delightful to sit in front of Sacred Grounds or the Bluebird Café and have a quiet chat with a coworker over a latte. Heck, it would be great to get across Grand Avenue without waiting for three minutes at a crosswalk!
The reality is Grand Avenue IS State Highway 82. The reality is also that the Colorado Bridge Enterprise (CBE) funds available to replace the Grand Avenue Bridge simply cannot be used for anything else. See: http://www.coloradodot.info/projects/sh82grandavenuebridge
The most recent study of the SH82/Grand Avenue issue began in 2005 with the SH82 Corridor Conditions Assessment. This was followed, in 2007, by the Corridor Optimization Study (COS) and the Corridor Optimization Plan (COP) in 2010. The COS identified 22 alternatives, including one bypass and one relocation of SH82, none of which provided a perfect solution.
In a comment on the COS, Ralph Trapani, a professional engineer and retired CDOT project manager for the I-70 Glenwood Canyon project, now working as consultant stated, “To promote mobility in Glenwood Springs, the residents of our community deserve the opportunity to consider low-cost, environmentally friendly, multi-modal alternatives versus expensive, invasive, highway–only solutions.”
The COP took the COS one step further and developed 10 strategies for accommodating anticipated transportation growth. Of these strategies, one called for a “bypass” of two lanes and another suggested relocating SH82 — all four lanes. While the COP analyzed the East River Corridor, the corridor along the east side of the Roaring Fork River, it clearly stated that there was no implication this corridor must be used. The result of the analysis included many “pros” and six “cons.” Four of the cons were major including “significant” new right of way requirements, high capital cost for construction and maintenance, environmental mitigation, and additional private property impact.
The COP anticipated that this would be a long-term endeavor lasting 10 to 25 years. Since studies show that only approximately one-third of traffic is passing through Glenwood, the plan included implementing moderate cost projects in years five through 10. It also noted that funding for a bypass or relocation will require a combination of resources including the city of Glenwood, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), Garfield County, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA), and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
According to several knowledgeable sources federal funds for new large-capacity projects are almost nonexistent. When there are funds available, these are often allocated to heavily populated metropolitan areas. Currently, the state is dealing with flood damage and traffic volume issues on I-70. It will be difficult to compete with those projects for state and federal funds.
It is critical to note this is not a Glenwood ONLY problem. It impacts communities from Parachute to Aspen to Vail. Any long-term solution must involve those communities, not only in the planning and funding, but in the political push to elevate it to a state priority level.
Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda
Should the decision to relocate State Highway 82 have been made 30, 40, or even 60 years ago? Perhaps. Could SH 82 have been moved then? Possibly. It was not for numerous reasons; land acquisition, disagreements on location, geology, geography, and the critical factor, money. Would I have done the same? I honestly don’t know. There is no going back. No amount of finger pointing is going to change the reality of now.
So now what …
Let’s be clear; the Grand Avenue Bridge is being replaced. Core drilling, resumed Thursday, Jan. 16. The bridge has been deemed “Functionally Obsolete” by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Additionally, some structural deficiencies have been identified, including scour, corroded reinforcing steel, spalling concrete and fatigue issues. Preliminary design elements are being evaluated, and an Environmental Assessment (EA) is being written. Once completed, the EA will go through a public review process and public hearing.
While the idea of relocating SH82 should not be abandoned, I have concerns. Conservative estimates placed the cost of the SH82 relocation at approximately $300 million in 2007. These costs would be borne by a combination of resources as noted above including the city of Glenwood Springs. How would the city’s portion be funded? Additional tax? Municipal bonds? Should the city and citizens take on significant additional debt? The city would also be responsible for the ongoing maintenance and replacement of Grand Avenue at an unknown cost. In the preliminary 2014 Glenwood Springs budget the Street Tax Fund is currently showing a deficit of $122,091 and the General Fund a deficit of $999,247. That is simply not sustainable.
Is the East River Corridor still a viable alternative? Many seem to think it is not due to what is referred to as Section 4(f) of Department of Transportation (DOT) Act of 1966.
This section stipulates that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and other DOT agencies cannot approve the use of land from publicly owned parks, recreational areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges or public or private historical sites unless certain stringent, specific conditions are met.
The fact that a recreational trail and a historic railroad corridor exist along this alignment could derail the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
Are we there yet?
Anyone with children has heard “Are we there yet?” hundreds of times during a car trip. The answer is usually “No, we still have miles to go.” The same is true for any bypass, relocation question. We just aren’t there yet.
However, there are several smaller, lower cost projects that could offer some relief to Grand Avenue. Some of these plans are already in the works like South Bridge and improvements to south Midland. Plans currently being pursued include the Eighth Street connection to Midland Avenue. Other ideas for greater connectivity have also been discussed that could be accomplished for much less than one huge venture.
It is not my intention to rob anyone of their dreams. However, in thinking about such large projects it is important to look at the whole picture, and what those projects do to the financial viability of Glenwood Springs for generations to come. Is the benefit to the downtown so great that the tax base will increase to such a degree to cover any debt incurred for the long term? It is important to have a vision and a dream. But it is also important to ask the hard questions.
It is vital to keep this discussion going. I appreciate that there are passionate, involved citizens like John Haines that care enough to speak out. I fully understand his frustration and that of property and business owners like Tony Rosa. I want to assure them that while we “are not there yet” there are some stops along the way that could make the trip more enjoyable.
The city of Glenwood is currently pursuing an update of the Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). We will be seeking citizen comment during this process. The plan will consider the work done in the Corridor Optimization Study (COS) and Plan (COP) as well as other existing documents.
The LRTP will include prioritization of the transportation improvement projects throughout the city with the ultimate goal of reducing traffic congestion and improving the overall quality of life for Glenwood residents and visitors.
Kathy Trauger writes the blog Our Town — Glenwood Springs and is a member of the Glenwood Springs Planning and Zoning Commission.
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