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Drive From Fort Collins To Denver Could Soon Take 3 Hours Without Change, Leaders Say

The Colorado Department of Transportation is beginning work on long-awaited improvements to a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 25 between Loveland/Johnstown and Fort Collins this summer. Even so, local communities say they're losing faith in the state's ability to keep up with a rising population and its transportation needs.

This year's project aims to offset the interstate's reputation for frequent traffic jams by adding an express lane between state Highway 402, near Johnstown, to state Highway 14, in Fort Collins. Additionally, crews will replace or widen four bridges, as well as make smaller additions, including a Park-n-Ride just north of the U.S. Highway 34 exit in Loveland.

Work on the express lanes project is scheduled to take three years and cost $330 million, according to CDOT. An exact start date is expected once the agency wraps up negotiations with private contractor Kramer/IHC in the coming months.

Meanwhile, CDOT's statewide budget remains underfunded by more than $200 million each year, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper. That's on top of the agency's existing statewide project list of $9 billion. Total needs in Colorado are estimated to be $25 billion by 2040.

The lag in funding and impending wave of new arrivals to Larimer and Weld counties -- about 700,000 people by 2050 -- is putting the pressure on local communities to come up with the money needed to make timely improvements to the north-south route.

"We're 10 years behind where we should have been in expanding I-25," said David May, CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce and head of the Fix North Interstate-25 business alliance steering committee.

In the world of transportation planning, "level of service," or LOS, is a qualitative measure used to determine a road's quality of traffic service a road has. North I-25's, according to May, the road has a "D" rating and is quickly falling toward an "F."

Credit Colorado Department of Transportation
A map of CDOT's $330 million plan to add express lanes along a 14-mile stretch of I-25. The project is set to break ground sometime this year.

Projects like last year's completion of a climbing lane south of Berthoud, and the soon-to-be finished rebuilding of the Crossroads Bridge in Loveland, are helpful in preparing for population growth, he said. But they're not the final answer.

"[If nothing more is done] that could mean 3-hour trips from Fort Collins to Denver International Airport," May added.

Right now, the 64-mile drive from downtown Fort Collins to downtown Denver takes approximately 80 minutes. 

May said he couldn't pinpoint an exact date for when the 3-hour travel time could become reality, but said it could happen within five to ten years if lane additions aren't made in a timely manner.  

CDOT's ultimate vision for North I-25 is four lanes - one express lane and three general-purpose lanes each way along the 50-plus mile stretch between Fort Collins to Denver. But if no new steady sources of funding for transportation are identified, those improvements could take until 2075 to finish, according to the agency.

This year's express lanes project between Johnstown and Fort Collins was originally slated to wrap up in 2032. But an injection of funding from a group of city and county leaders, known as the I-25 Coalition, expedited that process by more than a decade.

To get the express lanes project going, Fort Collins gave CDOT $19 million. Johnstown -- a town of 15,000 -- contributed $7 million. Weld County put up $3 million.

Together, eight local governments and private developer Centerra Metro District contributed $55 million to the project, according to CDOT's records.

Piecing together local funds with federal matching grants, a loan and state funds, the agency came up with the $330 million it needed.

Mark Jackson, deputy director for Fort Collins' transportation planning department and member of the I-25 Coalition, said his city chose to contribute to the project - as opposed to feeling like it had to.

"This is an investment for us," Jackson said. "It's such an important issue regionally that benefits not only CDOT, but it also benefits every one of the communities and counties up and down the I-25 corridor."

Jackson acknowledged that the state needs an adequate source of transportation funding, but said Colorado wasn't alone in dealing with the trend of local and regional partnerships forming to fund road improvements.

"I think what you're seeing nationally is a push where things may have been covered by federal funds and grant sources in the past no longer are there," he said.

Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County commissioner and member of the I-25 Coalition, said it was just a matter of deciding how much to contribute.

"This corridor is extremely important not just for Northern Colorado, but for the economic wellbeing of the state of Colorado," she said. "It is truly Main Street Colorado."

Her county had already put $25,000 into what's called a federal TIGER grant application to fund a different express lane project in Thornton. After discussions last year with the I-25 Coalition, Weld agreed to contribute $2 million to match what other municipalities were putting forward at the time. It upped its contribution by an additional $1 million based on need.

"The only community that was reluctant to contribute at first was Johnstown," she said "They had to hold [multiple] meetings and re-vote after their citizens spoke up."


Credit Hannah Garcia / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County commissioner, makes her closing statement during a candidate forum on April 9, 2014 at the P.S. Miller Library in Castle Rock.

Now, the coalition's focus has shifted to the challenge of securing funding to build express lanes from Highway 402, near Johnstown, to Highway 66 in Longmont, she added.

While the effort to fund the North I-25 express lanes project was ultimately successful, the model of locally-funded interstate improvements for future projects is not sustainable, CDOT's Fiel said.

"Towns like Johnstown...they're tapped out," he said. "There has to come up with another solution."

Help could come from a Trump Administration proposal to boost spending on infrastructure. But that too, would require the state to put up matching money.

Last week, a bipartisan group of county commissioners and chambers of commerce from around Colorado filed four possible ballot measure proposals to increase the state's sales tax to fund state and local transportation projects. Voters could decide on such a measure as early as this fall.


I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
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