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Sundin column: Why shouldn’t public get to vote on bridge?

Hal Sundin
Hal Sundin
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In the Dec. 31 Post Independent, Terry Stark urged allowing a public vote on the Grand Avenue bridge. At a City Council meeting in June 2013, Citizens to Save Grand Avenue asked City Council for a public vote on the bridge issue, but members rejected the request, claiming they knew what the public wanted.

So in September 2013, Citizens to Save Grand Avenue mailed public opinion ballots to all Glenwood Springs residents asking two questions: 1. Should City Council stop the CDOT plan to replace the Grand Avenue bridge? 2. Should City Council initiate long-range planning to get Highway 82 off Grand Avenue? The response from about 700 residents was 75 percent against replacing the bridge and 84 percent in favor of planning to get Highway 82 off Grand Avenue.

Since then there has been a rising tide of public commentary in letters to the editor and guest columns in the Post Independent, the majority of which were against the current replacement plan and in favor of planning addressing all of the Highway 82 transportation needs. The same opinion was expressed by over 90 percent of those who spoke up this winter at the public hearing on the CDOT-sponsored Environmental Assessment.

All along, the public has been deluged with questionable statements intended to create fear and uncertainty about doing anything except accepting CDOT’s single goal of getting the Grand Avenue bridge off its list of substandard bridges, the principal reasons being the 9-feet-4-inch lane widths and the $99 million reserved for this project. (The latest cost estimate is well above that figure.)

The public has been propagandized about the structural condition of the 62-year-old bridge, creating unfounded fears that it might collapse, and questionable statements intended to discourage hope for construction of a new route through town, like the cost will be $500 million to $1 billion, funding for it will never be available and the public never has been, and never will be, in agreement on a location for the new route. Let’s look into these claims.

Age alone doesn’t determine the useful life of a bridge. Many bridges are older than 62 years and are still structurally sound. CDOT has not put any load limit on the bridge, which shows that it is not concerned about its structural integrity, but should be attending to maintenance, a responsibility it has been shirking.

The high-dollar guesstimate for the cost of a new route that has popped up out of someone’s head (or been pulled out of somewhere else) has little validity because no definitive engineering study has yet been made. It is very likely an exaggeration.

Basing the availability of future funding on present conditions is myopic. The current stress on highway funding comes from a combination of legislative failure and the damage caused by major flooding in 2013. Federal and Colorado gasoline taxes are 18.4 and 22 cents per gallon respectively, and have not been increased since the early 1990s, when a gallon of gas cost about a dollar.

Rebuilding the highways and bridges destroyed in 2013 has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, draining CDOT funds. But the need to provide a functioning highway system must sooner or later be addressed, requiring significant future increases in sources of funding. That money will go where traffic congestion has become a major problem (like Highway 82 in Glenwood Springs), and where the preliminary engineering studies defining what needs to be built have been completed (unlike Glenwood Springs).

And finally, the selection of the best design and location for relieving traffic congestion through Glenwood Springs will not be decided by public clamor. To be eligible for federal funding, that must be determined by a detailed engineering study — an Environmental Impact Statement — evaluating all options and identifying the preferred alternative. The money will go to those projects that are ready, and that is why CDOT and Glenwood Springs should immediately get started on the EIS process.

The Grand Avenue Bridge issue is the most serious decision this city and its residents have faced in 60 years. Why shouldn’t the residents get to vote on this decision, just as they get to vote on city taxes and bond issues, which are not nearly as crucial to the future of our city and our lives? Attend the Feb. 19 City Council meeting at 6 p.m. to tell them that you want a vote on the bridge included in the April 7 election ballot.

Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.


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