If you asked 10 people in the Colorado Springs business community to name the best news for our economic future to come out of 2012, you might hear close to 10 different answers.
One might point to the long-term lease of Memorial Health System to University of Colorado Health. Someone else might single out the efforts to shutter Martin Drake Power Plant and accelerate a new downtown revitalization.
Others might mention the beginning of drilling for oil and gas in El Paso County, soon to include Banning Lewis Ranch on the city’s eastern edge. Or perhaps the merger of the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corp. to create the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. Then there’s the expected renewal of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority’s capital improvement projects, funding major road and bridge work throughout the area for the next decade.
Those and more would be worthy to consider, and all will have positive impacts for years to come.
But we’d like to add another nomination. From this view, nothing will mean more to our economic outlook than this year’s developments regarding Interstate 25. First came the state’s go-ahead for planning and design of the long-needed, much-procrastinated I-25 interchange with U.S. Highway 24 and Cimarron Street on the southwest edge of downtown. Second has been the funding and approvals to widen I-25 from North Academy Boulevard to Monument Hill and the Douglas County line.
Without removing those two albatrosses, Colorado Springs always would have to deal with the worsening consequences. We would have the annual summer-long bottlenecks at the prehistoric U.S. 24/Cimarron interchange, driving visitors crazy and affecting how they view our region. We also would have the problem of access to the city center, with its ambitious ideas and plans that also will inevitably create new traffic challenges.
For a constant reminder, we’ve kept a copy of the area’s top road-improvement priorities as submitted by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments in 1974 — nearly four decades ago. Atop that list, when the county had only about 270,000 residents (it’s about 640,000 now), we had the I-25/Cimarron interchange, with the suggestion for a full cloverleaf allowing for continuous flow in all directions.
Just think, if we could have gotten that done — even in the 1980s. The same goes with widening I-25, though we dealt with that logjam in the past decade with COSMIX (2005 through 2007), making the thoroughfare six lanes through the city. Sadly, though, that major project didn’t include modernizing the dilapidated Cimarron interchange (or Fillmore, for that matter), and it didn’t address the fast-rising traffic volume up to the county line.
These days, I-25 turns into a daily mess from Briargate to Monument, and even the slightest flat tire or accident creates gridlock. But adding two more lanes to Monument Hill can’t hurt, especially since that work is being fast-tracked toward completion by the end of 2014. We can only hope the state, and Douglas County, will respond soon by widening the last remaining four-lane segment from Monument Hill to Castle Rock.
In our view, moving forward with those two projects will open untapped opportunities across the Colorado Springs market area. Not just helping downtown and tourism but also the city’s north side, which already has plenty of residents but endless possibilities for further economic development.
To make all that happen, we must turn I-25 from an obstacle into an invaluable asset. Finally, that’s happening.