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January 27, 2009 — If you’re looking for innovation in Colorado’s share of the Obama administration’s stimulus package, you’re likely to be disappointed in what some transportation officials are calling “a jobs bill.”
Most of the $520 million in new spending headed this way will be pumped into much-needed and “shovel-ready” paving projects and repairs for bridges and interchanges that have been put off for years in the face of shrinking federal and state highway budgets.
More than $62 million in stimulus dollars could be spent on projects along I-70, but that money won’t do much to solve the corridor’s long-term transportation problems, says Flo Raitano, executive director of the I-70 Coalition — a group of governments and private-sector parties pushing to fix the state’s main east-west interstate without going asphalt-wild and running roughshod over small mountain towns wedged into narrow valleys.
“[The stimulus] will make real and meaningful impacts on fixing-it-first type projects, but the Obama administration needs to go further than that next and say, ‘How do we be thoughtful about where we take our transportation system in the 21st century?’” Raitano said.
Frustrated by the pave-it-first approach of Gov. Bill Owens’ administration, the group was formed to champion rail and other mass transit solutions for unclogging the main artery connecting the Front Range with the mountains and the Western Slope. The coalition played a significant role in last summer’s so-called “Collaborative Effort,” which came up with a compromise plan to widen certain choke points on the highway — such as between Floyd Hill and the Twin Tunnels — but also to actively pursue some type of advanced rail guideway system (AGS) from Denver to Grand Junction.
The coalition is close to finishing its transit planning study funded by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and later this year a separate Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (RMRA) feasibility study for high-speed rail along both the I-70 and I-25 corridors will be completed.
The final step for the state is a Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for the corridor, which would then pave the way for funding and design work by 2010. That doesn’t quite fit the time frame of the stimulus bill, which requires projects to turn dirt within 180 days at the latest.
“What they’re trying to do is save jobs right now,” Raitano said. “What Obama wants to do with the stimulus is good, and we have ignored the routine maintenance and upgrades for far too long. When the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis [in 2007], I thought that would be a wakeup call, but the country rolled over and hit the snooze alarm.
“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire and say, ‘OK, but this is just step one.’”
Obama said on the campaign trail he’s a fan of upgrading the country’s woeful passenger-rail system, and of the $520 million reportedly headed Colorado’s way in the stimulus bill, $100 million is earmarked for transit projects (although only about 10 percent for rural transit authorities).
Most estimates put the cost of an advanced guideway rail system into the mountains in the billions, but it doesn’t matter in the context of stimulus, Raitano points out, because the project is at least a decade away.
But she adds that some local transportation authorities along the corridor will likely benefit from the stimulus bill, and developing sophisticated mass transit systems along I-70 is critical to the success of mountain rail so passengers can get around once they arrive at their station.
David Johnson, a planner for ECO Transit in Eagle County, said it’s good to see the new administration pumping money into buses and rail ($10 billion has been earmarked in the stimulus bill) “to reduce traffic congestion and gas consumption,” but mass transit is increasingly a necessity in mountain towns.
“At the national level it is exciting to see that [mass transit is] at the forefront of the new administration’s agenda, but at the local level it’s a little different,” Johnson said. “Regardless of agenda, this is something we have to do.”
Johnson said because his resort county is surrounded by federal land and has already been extensively developed, only about 4 percent remains for future development, and that land is incredibly expensive.
“All squeezed in this tiny valley, this creates the need for different ways of getting around when you have this little land and the land is this expensive,” Johnson said. “There’s only so many roads and so many parking spaces that you can do.”
One of the projects identified for stimulus funds is a $24 million bus maintenance and storage facility in Avon that would be built as a partnership between the town and ECO Transit.
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