Report: Widening I-70 in Denver Wastes at Least $58 Million

Media Contacts

Project Makes List of Wasteful Highway Projects in the Country

CoPIRG Foundation

A new study by the CoPIRG Foundation and Frontier Group concludes that a proposal to widen I-70 while it undergoes much needed replacement will waste at least $58 million in taxpayer dollars. The highway widening project that cuts through a neighborhood in north Denver is one of 12 national highway widening projects slated to collectively waste at least $24 billion according to the study, Highway Boondoggles 2: More Wasted Money and America’s Transportation’s Future

The new study details how despite America’s massive repair and maintenance backlog, and in defiance of America’s changing transportation needs, state governments across the country, including Colorado, continue to waste money each year on new and wider highways.

“The I-70 viaduct that cuts through north Denver is dirty and deteriorating and needs a long-term fix,” said Danny Katz, Director of the CoPIRG Foundation. “A long-term fix will cost a lot no matter what Colorado does. Unfortunately, widening I-70 to ten lanes while it is being fixed would waste at least $58 million at a time when Colorado is strapped for transportation cash.”

Since 1964, the I-70 viaduct, which runs from approximately I-25 to Colorado Boulevard, has been an eyesore and a source of pollution and noise as it cuts through the Denver neighborhoods of Elyria, Globeville and Swansea. By 2010, the viaduct was considered “structurally deficient,” a federal designation indicating significant problems in its structure. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has proposed to replace the viaduct and in September 2015, CDOT put out a formal call for private companies willing to finance and build the project.

However, CDOT is also proposing to widen the highway from six-lanes to 10-lanes. Without detailed evaluations of six- and eight-lane options, cost comparisons have proven difficult but in 2008 the original Draft Environmental Impact Statement estimated that building eight-lanes instead of 10-lanes would save $58 million. 

“We need to be spending our limited transportation dollars on repairing and maintaining our current roads and bridges and investing in transportation solutions that reduce the need for costly and disruptive highways expansion projects,” said Katz.

According to a report by Smart Growth for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, 19 percent of roads in the Colorado are already in poor condition and 2013 data from the Federal Highway Administration showed Colorado had 1,438 structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.   

As one of the fastest growing states in the country, highway expansion proponents have cited the need to widen highways to combat congestion and the anticipated influx of new vehicles to Colorado’s roads. However, longstanding research demonstrates that building additional highway capacity – whether by widening existing roads or building new thoroughfares – does not solve congestion, but rather creates more traffic, in which more drivers spend more time behind the wheel. The report cites examples including:

  • The Katy Freeway – In Texas, this highway was known as far back as 2002 to be a very congested highway.  A $2.8 billion highway widening project was promoted as a fix for the congestion.  When the expanded road opened in 2012, it became the world’s widest – with 26 lanes.  And yet, travel times worsened considerably. By 2014, 85 percent of commutes along that highway took longer than they had in 2011.  Morning commutes took more than 30 percent longer, and afternoon commutes took more than 50 percent longer.
  • I-270 in Maryland – In the 1980s, congestion led Maryland to spend $200 million to widen Interstate 270 to as much as 12 lanes.  By 1999, traffic had filled up the new lanes – reaching levels that hadn’t been predicted to happen until 2010 and leading one local official to tell the Washington Post the road was again “a rolling parking lot.” 
  • I-405 in Los Angeles – A $1 billion widening of I-405 that disrupted commutes for five years – including two complete shutdowns of a 10-mile stretch of one of the nation’s busiest highways – had no demonstrable success in reducing congestion. Just five months after the widened road reopened, the rush-hour trip took longer than it had while construction was still ongoing.  
  • Silicon Valley’s U.S. 101 – Over two decades, $1.2 billion was spent widening U.S. 101 between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. In 2014, after a new interchange opened, travel took between 14 and 17 percent longer than it had a year earlier.

Here in Denver, five years after completing the I-25 T-REX project congestion hit pre-construction congestion levels.

In addition, the CoPIRG Foundation and Frontier Group study finds that the proposed I-70 expansion fails to take into account changing transportation trends or the negative impact that vehicle pollution has on community health and the environment. 

“America’s long-term travel needs are changing, especially among Millennials, who are driving fewer miles, getting driver licenses in fewer numbers, and expressing greater preferences to live in areas where they do not need to use a car often,” said Tony Dutzik, Senior Policy Analyst at Frontier Group. “Despite the fact that Millennials are the nation’s largest generation, and the unquestioned consumers of tomorrow’s transportation system, Colorado is failing to adequately respond to these changing trends.” he added.

The CoPIRG Foundation concluded that I-70 should not be widened to 10-lanes.

“Colorado should not widen I-70 to 10-lanes. This would maximize the impact of I-70 on the surrounding community, one of Denver’s poorest, instead of minimizing the impact,” said Katz. “Money spent on widening I-70 is money that can’t be spent fixing other existing roads and transit systems, adding new rail or bus lines, or exploring ways to serve America’s changing transportation needs more effectively and efficiently.”

The report can be read here.