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Rush hour traffic along I-25 near Empower Field at Mile High. Highway officials have given up on expanding lanes to unclog I-25 through central Denver. State and regional officials will instead focus on redeveloping the sprawling former rail repair areas at Burnham Yards (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Highway officials have given up on expanding lanes to unclog I-25 through central Denver in coming years, saying there’s no money for it, acknowledging a reality that environmental and neighborhood justice groups had been pushing them to recognize. 

State and regional officials will instead focus on moving rail lines from next to the highway at Alameda Avenue to 6th Avenue, and redevelop the sprawling former rail repair areas at Burnham Yard to emphasize multimodal transit and reconnecting west and east communities split by the Valley Highway. 

“CDOT has also determined that the funds do not exist for the widening of I-25 between 6th Avenue and Alameda Avenue and that only relocating the Consolidated Main Line off I-25 must be studied,” according to a letter from transportation department director Shoshana Lew. The letter was included in April commissioner study materials.

For years, CDOT has commissioned deep studies of I-25 alternatives ranging from extra general-purpose lanes, to new managed or toll lanes, to congestion management fees at busy times, to “braiding” crowded entrance and exit ramps. 

The agency now says it has no money for widening, and can handle only one federally required environmental review at a time. It has chosen to partner with the Federal Railroad Administration on its next study of the corridor. The letter to state economic development officials asks for an extension of loans secured last year for an enterprise fund of CDOT to buy Burnham Yard from Union Pacific. 

“That work in and of itself will be a major lift over many years, and completing it would be necessary before even thinking about a future action on I-25 of any significance,” CDOT spokesman Matt Inzeo said, when asked about Lew’s letter on the rail yard. 

A coalition of environmental and alternative transportation groups had just sent a group letter to CDOT, Denver and the Denver Regional Council of Governments in March demanding they drop any plans to add vehicle capacity on central I-25, and concentrate on other modes of transit. They appear somewhat stunned that CDOT has now said the equivalent of, “You’re right, we won’t.”

Colorful graffiti covers the buildings inside the rail yards just west of the 10th/Osage RTD light rail station along Osage St. Highway officials have given up on expanding lanes to unclog I-25 through central Denver. State and regional officials will instead focus on redeveloping the sprawling former rail repair areas at Burnham Yard in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott, Special to the Colorado Sun.)

Lack of any foreseeable money may be the surface reason for the policy change, advocacy groups said, but government planners are also under new pressures to cut driving in combating climate change, and to address environmental justice laws.

“I think people are starting to understand that these highways are really city killers,” said Matt Frommer, transportation analyst with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, one of the signatories to the anti-expansion letter. “And we’re trying to build a more livable city. So I’m glad we’re leaving the capacity as is and hopefully using the $1.5 billion for other good stuff.”

While the end to I-25 expansion plans for the foreseeable future is a boon to the activist groups, hundreds of thousands of weekly drivers stuck in rush hour jams from Alameda north to Speer Boulevard may be disappointed to hear there’s no relief in sight. Denver City Council Member Kevin Flynn, who also chairs the regional planning agency DRCOG, agreed the situation is dire — CDOT’s studies show rush hour drivers are often slowed 18 minutes a trip just in that stretch. 

“Right now the attention needs to be on transit and other non-automobile approaches,” Flynn said. “Because we don’t have the money. What I would say to the people stuck in that traffic jam is, consider whether there’s another way they can make that trip.”

The urgency for CDOT and Denver to do something in the central I-25 corridor, from the Santa Fe Drive interchange on the south to 20th Street on the north, has been meticulously documented for years. 

Safety is a priority on the lists. From 2013 to 2015, the most recent planning study shows, the corridor averaged 3 vehicle crashes a day. Heading north from Alameda toward 6th Avenue, heavily used freight railroad lines sit just a few feet from the closest northbound highway lane. Low clearances at the 23rd and Speer bridges have caused notorious crashes of high profile trucks, and the bridges themselves are at the end of planned life.

Congestion is an even more tangible problem transportation agencies must confront. The eight-lane section of freeway is meant to carry a peak of about 150,000 vehicles per day. Instead, current traffic counts range from 178,000 to 261,000 vehicles a day, with the heaviest traffic on the north edge above Colfax Avenue.

The volume wastes everyone’s time. CDOT’s study considers the corridor congested for eight hours of most working days. That triples the drive time. At light traffic times, the stretch from Santa Fe to 20th is a seven-minute drive. In peak periods, CDOT notes, that same drive can take 20 to 30 minutes. Demand and volume will grow at least 15% by 2040, the study adds. 

The only views of the empty rail yards from the W. 8th Ave. overpass is through a chain linked fence through a chainlink fence lining the sidewalk along the bridge. State transportation officials believe parts of the old Burnham Yard railroad repair and maintenance area could be a new multi-modal transit hub for central Denver, reconnecting divided parts of downtown while also trying to address new state rules requiring reductions in greenhouse gases that come from the transportation sector. (Photo By Kathryn Scott, Special to the Colorado Sun.)

The most recent comprehensive study of the corridor evaluated a wide variety of fixes aimed at both safety and congestion. They included adding general purpose lanes or managed (toll/high-occupancy vehicle lanes; creating dedicated express bus lanes to expand transit use; a “braided” ramp system to alleviate problems created by too many entrances and exits weaving through a packed corridor; and even moving the highway entirely to a far away corridor and repairing the urban core. 

While CDOT will continue to pursue replacing the corridor’s key out of date bridges, it is now acknowledging that lane expansions for I-25 are a not-now, maybe-never proposition. In late 2021, CDOT commissioners approved rules fulfilling a state law that make planning for greenhouse gas reductions from vehicle traffic a mandatory part of all major projects. The rules are meant to move the agency away from its traditional role of pouring concrete and paving roads, and toward so-called multi-modal traffic planning that incorporates mass transit, bicycles and pedestrians. 

A CDOT report on the central I-25 corridor shows the stretch of highway in question, in red; Burnham Yard in purple shade; the BNSF line in green, within a stone’s throw of I-25 between Alameda and Sixth; and other lines. (I-25 Planning and Environmental Linkages Study Report, 2020)

CDOT is starting to realize how deeply the new rules will impact projects that have long been on state and local planners’ wish lists, Frommer said. 

“The targets are actually really aggressive. Which is great for us,” Frommer said. “It’s not going to get us the whole way to compliance, but they’re meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. And so that requires not only significant investment in transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, but also that we actually limit new investment in expansion projects.”

The Burnham Yard site could be a hub for all those things, transportation advocates say. RTD light rail lines already run through the corridor, and trains run slowly and make tight turns; the regional transit agency is likely to need more tracks in the central core if it is ever able to expand ridership and routes, Flynn said. 

Union Pacific decommissioned its repair facilities in the area in 2016, Lew’s letter said, leaving the area largely unused since then. If the proposed Front Range Passenger Rail, from Pueblo through Denver and Boulder to Fort Collins, moves forward, it will need track realignment and improvement in that area. CDOT’s enterprise fund is putting out a request for proposals for the future of all tracks through the area, including adding two to three lines. 

Once that’s done, Lew wrote, CDOT will launch a required National Environmental Policy Act review with the Federal Railroad Administration, complex studies that often take years. CDOT would retain 17 of the yard’s 60 acres for transportation uses, and work with local agencies on planning for the rest, including the possibility of transferring rights to a developer.

Eyes are turning to I-25 as CDOT wraps up other major projects and launches others. The state agency has completed the South Gap widening and improvements on I-25 in Douglas County, and is making progress on the billion-dollar Central 70 project removing viaducts and burying part of the interstate through north Denver. It is beginning work on a $700 million rebuild of the Floyd Hill corridor between Evergreen and Idaho Springs, including a new managed lane, small-bus service, and replacement of the Clear Creek bridge and U.S. 6 connections. 

Denver will be conducting its own studies of central I-25 at the same time, Lew said. There will be heavy pressure to incorporate affordable housing into the Burnham Yard mix, as many of the surrounding neighborhoods are considered environmentally and economically impacted and have demanded change. 

The advocacy coalition’s letter to CDOT cited studies showing the neighborhoods on the west side of central I-25, Sun Valley and Valverde, have asthma rates 253% higher than the state average. “Low income residents and residents of color have already paid the price for our transportation system by way of their health, as evidenced by this data,” the letter said. 

Physically, the Valley Highway is another literal divide, advocates argue. 

“We have a highway that is essentially like a giant wall, bisecting our city into two cities, and it’s really hard to cross from one side to the other, if you’re not in a car,” Frommer said. 

CDOT estimated it would cost $1.5 billion to widen 4.5 miles of central I-25, Frommer said. 

“We’d rather see the money used to move people more efficiently and tie the two halves of the city back together,” he said. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...