Bumpy road ahead for road construction projects

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If there’s a simple truth about money for major Colorado transportation projects, it’s this:

There isn’t much of it.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Craig Casper, the chief transportation engineer for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments. “And I have records going back to 1967.”

PPACG is the region’s metropolitan planning organization. Governed by a board that includes representatives from three counties (El Paso, Teller, and Park) and 13 municipalities, the organization is responsible for planning, coordinating and prioritizing regional transportation projects.

The organization’s most recent long-range transportation plan covers the period from 2008-2035. The “fiscally constrained” project list includes many items that would cost hundreds of millions to complete.

But the list is now largely irrelevant.

Because of budget shortfalls, “total funding from the state will be about $1 billion for all of Colorado this year, “said Casper. “That’s down 50 percent from the year before. (The PPACG’s) share will barely cover minimal maintenance of the existing system.”

Although the Pikes Peak region accounts for 12-14 percent of the state’s population, and an equal percentage of vehicle miles traveled, the region receives only 4 to 5 percent of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s budget.

“We’re a donor region in a big way,” said Casper. “We only get back about 30-40 percent of what we send.”

And things may get even worse.

In 2004, voters in El Paso County approved a county-wide 1 percent sales tax for transportation, to be administered by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority. Fifty-five percent of the tax is dedicated to capital projects, while 45 percent is used for maintenance. Unless renewed by voters, the capital portion of the tax will expire in 2014, reducing regional transportation funding by $1 billion over the following two decades.

Another problem: Congress has yet to reauthorize the federal surface transportation program, which expired in 2009. Kept alive by a series of temporary extensions, the program funnels tens of billions annually into big projects nationwide. Reauthorization will happen eventually, but with unpredictable local consequences.

Finally, the collapse of state tax receipts led the legislature to replace a program that financed large, significant transportation projects with one which funded multiple small projects statewide. That decision, taken in the last session, effectively deprived the region of $1 billion in potential funding for major projects.

Given all of these constraints, what will actually get built in the Pikes Peak region over the next 20 years?

That’s not clear, but here are 10 projects and their odds, along with a wild card.

Three you can bet on

Project: I-25/Cimarron interchange.

Cost: $95 million.

Funding source(s): Federal, state, local.

Probable start date: Mid-2012

Completed by: 2015

Background: Arguably the least-efficient, most congested and worst-designed interchange on the I-25 corridor between Baptist Road and Pueblo. A top regional priority.

Project: I-25 to Interquest Parkway improvements.

Cost: $35 million.

Funding source(s): Federal, state, local.

Probable start date: 2011

Completed by: 2013

Background: Like the Cimarron interchange, this project is extracted from a larger mega-project for which funding is now problematic. PPACG planners now have an inventory of ready-to-fund smaller projects with completed environmental assessments, public participation, design and cost estimates.

Project: Powers Boulevard and Airport/Stewart Avenue Interchange.

Cost: $35 million

Funding source(s): Federal, state

Probable start date: 2012

Completed by: 2013

Background: Another bite-sized project, largely funded by the feds. Essential for reducing congestion at the west gate of Peterson Air Force Base.

Three that will happen – eventually

Project: Academy/Union separated grade interchange.

Cost: $86 million

Funding source(s): Local

Probable start date: After 2020

Completed by: 2030

Background: A project that promises to be as difficult, contentious and almost as expensive as the Academy/Woodmen interchange, now under construction a couple of miles to the northwest. It’ll make for quick, safe and easier commutes – at the cost of severely impacting property owners and businesses at or near the intersection.

Project: Centennial Boulevard extension/Constitution Avenue extension

Cost: $133 million

Funding source(s): Local, private

Probable start date: After 2015

Completed by: 2030

Background: On PPACG’s list of “fiscally constrained multi-modal projects,” these two are listed separately. In fact, they’re two components of a decades-old scheme to enhance east-west mobility by connecting Centennial and a rebuilt Constitution Avenue (don’t you dare call it a freeway!) at the virtually unused I-25/Fontanero exit. The proposals have met with fierce neighborhood opposition in the past, when promises of bike lanes, sound walls and frequent pedestrian crossovers fell on deaf ears. Next time around, neighborhood activists may find that the perceived transportation needs of the greater community will trump their concerns.

Project: U.S. 24 west from I-25 to Edlowe Road (west of Woodland Park).

Cost: $460 million

Funding source(s): Federal, state, local

Probable start date: 2013

Completed by: 2030

Background: Although this is part of the fiscally constrained list, meaning that funding sources have been identified and are thought to be sufficient, it’ll take a long time to complete. The plan calls for widening Highway 24 to six lanes, reconstructing existing interchanges and adding others between I-25 and Manitou Avenue, and making other “needed improvements.” At a series of public presentations last year, Westside residents were none too pleased with the project design, citing increased pollution and traffic spill over into residential areas.

Three that might happen

Project: Banning Lewis Parkway

Cost: $207 million

Funding source(s): Private

Probable start date: 2018

Completed by: 2022

Background: First incorporated into the Banning-Lewis Ranch master plan in 1987, this four-lane expressway would run from Bradley road to Woodmen Road, and would then become a four-lane principal arterial from Woodmen to Briargate/Stapleton. Funding would come from the developers, who would issue special improvement district debt supported by property taxes revenue. Such debt could only be marketed in a buoyant local real estate market – and such a market may be many years away.

Project: Academy/Fountain separated grade interchange

Cost: $52 million

Funding source(s): Local

Probable start date: 2017

Completed by: 2025

Background: A mildly congested, long-ignored intersection, which was once identified as a major component of the now defunct Highway 24 bypass project. As originally conceived, the bypass would upgrade Fountain to a limited-access throughway which would have connected with Highway 24 at Powers. Given that Proby Parkway will largely replace Fountain as an airport access road, it’s doubtful that Fountain will receive much attention.

Project: Powers Boulevard: Mesa Ridge Parkway to I-25 at Northgate Road

Cost: $1.1 billion

Funding source(s): Federal, state, local, private

Probable start date: 2012-2020

Completed by: 2025-2035

Background: An unruly monster of a project, which would turn Powers Boulevard between Platte and Northgate into a limited-access freeway, including 25 new separated-grade interchanges. The developers of the proposed Copper Ridge retail center will, it is hoped, foot part of the bill, while the rest will be provided by CDOT, PPRTA, the city, the county and the feds. It’s an expensive project, which would consume much of the region’s transportation construction funds for a decade or more. Part of it will be built – but it’s hard to predict which part.

Don’t hold your breath

Project: Fixed guideway systems – a.k.a. trolleys – from downtown to UCCS and along Garden of the Gods to Powers.

Cost: $339 million

Funding source(s): Federal

Probable start date: 2012-2016

Completed by: 2016-2020

Background: Funding would come through the Federal Transit Administration’s “small starts” and “new starts” programs. Competition among cities for such tasty morsels of federal pork is intense. Moreover, local governments will have to cover revenue shortfalls, which may be substantial. Given the city’s ongoing fiscal crisis, it’s doubtful that city council would accept any such funds.

The wild card

Project: Front Range passenger rail between Colorado Springs and Denver

Cost: $3 billion (guesstimate)

Funding source(s): Federal

Probable start date: 2015

Completed by: 2018

Background: The New Mexico Rail Runner, which runs eight daily passenger trains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, is an interesting model. Arguments for the New Mexico rail link parallel those made for a Denver-Springs line: a congested interstate, many frustrated intercity commuters and existing tracks.

How could the feds possibly throw $3 billion into passenger rail, given so many other regional priorities? It may seem unlikely, but Craig Casper thinks that it may happen.

“I really can’t say that I understand the (federal approval) process,” he said. “I’m sometimes dumbfounded by the results – so why not? Our proposal is as good as any other.”