AURORA | The mammoth task of tearing down Interstate 70’s tattered viaduct and burying the highway from Colorado Boulevard to York Street is probably going to grab most of the transportation headlines when the project gets underway next year.
But to the east — through Aurora — is actually the highway’s busiest stretch of road, and one that will see significant construction, too, as the Colorado Department of Transportation redevelops the often-snarled highway.
Rebecca White, spokeswoman for CDOT’s Central 70 Project, said the stretch of highway between I-270 and I-225 — which covers several miles through north Aurora — sees the highest traffic volume on the interstate.
But it’s also a stretch that can look like a parking lot, with semi trucks and commuters clogging every lane.
“We’re hoping to improve that quite a bit,” White said.
Nearly 15 years in the making, the so-called Central 70 Project will bring new toll lanes, a submerged highway capped with a public park and even new affordable housing to various portions of the I-70 corridor, from the highway’s intersection with I-25 to Chambers Road in Aurora.
The new lanes in each direction will be similar to the recently-added express lanes on I-25 and U.S. Highway 36, White said. Those lanes require motorists to pay a toll unless they have at least three people in the vehicle.
Once crews start work next year, construction will take four to five years to complete, White said. It isn’t clear yet whether the construction company CDOT chooses will start at the west end of the project, the east end in Aurora, or begin work on both ends simultaneously, she said.
Either way, motorists can expect some slow traffic while the massive project is underway.
White said CDOT is anticipating those delays and has already laid out rules barring the contractor from closing any lanes during peak travel times. They also have an information campaign that will launch during construction, aimed at getting more people to carpool.
Without the project, traffic jams on I-70 could soon become interminable, with the roadway clogged for more than 12 hours a day, according to CDOT. Traffic volumes along I-70’s eastern stretches in Aurora are expected to swell from their current levels of about 52,000 vehicles per day to some 95,000 daily vehicles by 2035, according to CDOT. Closer to the I-25 and I-70 interchange in Denver, traffic volumes will grow from 220,000 to 270,000 vehicles in the same time frame.
Aurora officials have had a mixed response to the I-70 expansion in the years since the City Council sent a letter to Don Hunt, former director of CDOT, expressing approval for the project in September 2014.
City Councilman Bob LeGare, who serves as chairman of the city’s transportation policy committee, said he doesn’t expect project to cause too many hiccups for Aurora drivers during construction.
“I think it’s a great project, and it’s going to really help folks who live in Aurora get to downtown and places north and northwest,” LeGare said. “As far as direct impact on the operations of the city itself, I don’t think there’s a lot of impact there.”
Councilwoman Barb Cleland, who also sits on the transportation committee, was more skeptical of the project’s long-term benefits.
“I’m not sure there’s going to be a lot for Aurora,” Cleland said. “With all that they want to do on I-70, that’s a very expensive endeavor and I just hope that there’s enough money to do the expansion through Aurora … they say they will, so we’ll see.”
Boasting a total price tag of $1.17 billion, funders for the project include the Colorado Bridge Enterprise — which is ponying up the vast majority of the budget with $850 million — reserve dollars from a state senate bill passed in 2009, the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the City of Denver.
Aurora has not pledged any specific city funds for the I-70 expansion project, according to Mayor Steve Hogan. That decision not to contribute to the project stems in part from the city’s growing desire and need to maintain the stretch of I-70 in Aurora’s far eastern tracts, which are becoming increasingly packed with new manufacturing facilities and trucking routes.
“We are working very, very hard to try to be next in line for some of our own work on I-70 on the east side of the metro area beginning with the Picadilly (Road) and I-70 interchange and moving east,” Hogan said. “That’s going to be our future lifeblood.”
Indeed, Aurora has continuously experienced a proliferation of economic growth along the eastern stretches south of Denver International Airport in recent years. Just eight months after Amazon opened a 452,000-square-foot sorting facility in Majestic Commercenter, the company announced plans earlier this year to open another million-square-foot facility in east Aurora.
White said there are 1,200 businesses along the highway’s corridor and many of those include industrial or distribution facilities in Aurora. Making sure the area can continue to lure businesses drawn to the easy interstate access is an important piece of I-70’s improvement, she said.
Hogan said the city recently applied for a FASTLANE grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation to bolster some of the increasingly critical freight and shipping lines off of I-70 in east Aurora. The grants come from the FAST Act, a 2015 federal law that provided $4.5 billion for FASTLANE grants through 2020. In 2017, the U.S. DOT is availing $850 million in grants.
“If we get that grant, we’ll get things moving right away,” Hogan said. “There’s no question.”
Mac Callison, transportation planner for the city, could not be reached before press deadline to provide details on the grant.