Who’s to blame for ignored road plans?

Sometime in the next year, if the political pieces fall into place, we should be hearing about firm plans for fully rebuilding the Interstate 25 interchange for U.S. Highway 24/Cimarron Street, or as maps and signs also call it, Exit 141, with the project finishing as soon as 2017.

We’ll hear leaders talk about the huge accomplishment of making that specific project a reality, at long last. The accelerated, $95 million design-build concept should bring the work to fruition much faster than otherwise, solving a major traffic problem that has afflicted Colorado Springs for decades, especially during the summer tourism season.

Wait, you say. Decades? Surely that’s an exaggeration, right?

Wrong. In fact, my first experience of visiting Colorado Springs began with sitting through an exasperating delay, crawling slowly in a long line of vehicles trying to get off at that very I-25 exit. That happened in August 1972.

Five years later, I moved to Colorado Springs and through the decades I’ve seen that same scene re-enacted countless times, in that same spot. Because the long-outdated interchange for U.S. 24 provides the only access to the mountains from I-25 between Denver and Pueblo, it’s common to see cars backed up far to the north and south, waiting to exit. And that doesn’t count the eastbound jams coming off Ute Pass each summer, stretching as far as 31st Street.

But if you’re assuming our local leaders of another generation blew it by not addressing the problem, you’re wrong.

In fact, Colorado Springs and El Paso County have been begging the Colorado state government to do something about Exit 141 since, would you believe, 1972?

That’s not just someone speaking from memory. It comes from a specific document called “State Highway Improvement Requests 1974,” actually shown on the cover page as having been submitted to the state on Nov. 13, 1972.

In all likelihood, that timing was to request funding from the Colorado Legislature prior to its 1973 session, when lawmakers would have prepared their budget for the 1974 fiscal year.

The “top priority concern” in that proposal was Powers Boulevard, then a lightly used, two-lane road east of the city. But the local transportation planners knew development was coming, and they wanted Powers to become a “limited access” route, built “to no less than expressway standards” and becoming part of the state or federal (interstate) highway system. The concept then was for Powers to provide a continuous eastern bypass, starting from I-25’s exit to Fort Carson (now Exit 132 for Mesa Ridge Parkway) and continuing around the Springs to the North Gate entrance to the Air Force Academy, a total of 28.6 miles.

That was the plan, approved but never funded more than four decades ago, and yet in 2014 it remains basically the same interchange.

That never happened as rapid development replaced the plan, noted in the 1972 document, that “a minimum right-of-way width of 210 feet is planned for the entire route, [and] additional rights-of-way sufficient to allow for grade-separated interchanges will be reserved at intersections with arterial roadways.”

Wonderful idea. Sure would be nice now, since that continuous route still is a dream — and all I-25 traffic still flows through the heart of Colorado Springs.

That brings us back to our 1972 document, reminding the state of a “project approved last year [1971] but not funded.”

Lo and behold, that project is the “construction of a full cloverleaf interchange” at I-25 and U.S. 24. Yes, full cloverleaf, meaning entry-exit lanes and flyovers to expedite traffic flow in all directions.

That was the plan, approved but never funded more than four decades ago — and yet in 2014 it remains basically the same interchange as it was then.

Other top-level priorities from 1972 did make it off the drawing boards … in slow motion.

This area wanted a “North Nevada Avenue interchange with I-25” in 1972 — and it was finished in 2007. We requested widening I-25 from what is now the South Academy-Fort Carson exit northward to the Douglas County line atop Monument Hill, with that much-postponed work finally to be completed and fully resurfaced this summer. And those astute planners pushed for an east-west thoroughfare (Woodmen Road) from Falcon to I-25, which we do have now but with improvements ongoing.

Was the state (and/or federal) government guilty of ignoring Colorado Springs then, as many allege now? (Hmmm.) If the state had made those projects happen at any time in the 1970s, when costs were a fraction of what they are today, could that have enhanced how our metro area has grown and expanded? (Obviously.)

We can’t turn back the clock and erase those oversights. But we can look ahead to what Colorado Springs might become in the next generation, and try not to be the cause of history repeating itself, over and over.