Infrastructure & Environment

Can Road Rage Stop Colorado's Plan to Expand a Highway?

The state wants to expand an already hated highway in an impoverished Denver neighborhood. The neighbors are fighting back.
by | April 2017

For the past 35 years, Vince and Judy Sanchez have run a convenience store in the shadow of an elevated interstate highway in North Denver. The store is a bit out of the way for the 200,000 vehicles that pass overhead every day on the I-70 viaduct, but it is right in the middle of Elyria-Swansea, a poor and predominantly Hispanic neighborhood three miles from downtown.

Nearby residents frequent the shop at their own risk. In winter, entering customers can get hit with snow pushed off the highway by plows. The rest of the time, they have to deal with the pollution from the stop-and-go interstate traffic, combined with the dust of the dry Colorado climate. “The dust,” says Vince Sanchez, “is terrible.”

One of the reasons locals come here is that they have few alternatives. Even though Safeway, one of the country’s largest grocery store chains, operates a 1.5-million-square-foot distribution center three miles away, it is five miles to the nearest full-service grocery. Elyria-Swansea is in a food desert. For many residents, Stop-N-Shop is the best choice.

But it probably won’t be there for long. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) plans to triple the width of I-70 through Elyria-Swansea, and the Sanchez store is in the way. The state expects the highway to displace more than 20 businesses and 53 homes, as well as part of an elementary school playground. With the bigger footprint, engineers will convert the six-lane viaduct carried above ground into what will eventually be a 10-lane, 197-foot-wide highway below grade. State planners want to build several bridges and a four-acre park behind the school to keep the community connected, but that will require four to five years of construction right in the heart of the low-income neighborhood. And it means digging up a Superfund site while they’re at it.

Neighborhood activists have fought the project for 16 years. Many prefer taking the highway out of the neighborhood completely. But they’re running out of options. In January, the departing Obama administration gave Colorado the go-ahead for its $1.2 billion plan to expand Interstate 70. Legal challenges over environmental and civil rights issues continue, but the state is moving forward. Several homes near the Stop-N-Shop have already been bought and demolished. Vince and Judy Sanchez don’t know what the state will pay to take their land, but they don’t want to start over again when they’re within a few years of retirement.

Judy and Vince Sanchez may lose their convenience store when the highway is replaced. They opened the store 35 years ago and are not looking forward to starting over.

Despite its tortuous history, the expansion of Interstate 70 through Elyria-Swansea now seems inevitable. Years of federally mandated neighborhood consultations and environmental studies have reshaped the project, but haven’t changed its fundamental course. It is a sobering reminder that, when the needs of a long-neglected community clash with the ambitions of the region that surrounds it, people like the Sanchezes are the ones who are forced to move on.

Elyria-Swansea, as longtime resident Betty Cram sees it, is an essentially “Western” neighborhood. Cram, who is 94 years old, worries that the I-70 expansion will destroy that heritage, swallowing up more of what used to be the heart of the community.

During the 19th century, the towns of Elyria and Globeville grew up along the banks of the South Platte River and the rail line that connected Denver to the Transcontinental Railroad in Cheyenne, Wyo. Swansea, a little farther east, came along later. The first major industrial outposts in the area were smelters, which melted down the gold, silver, copper and lead that first drew white settlers to the region. Then came the stockyards, packing plants and livestock shows that drew cowboys from hundreds of miles around and gave Denver its Cow Town epithet. Globeville, Elyria and Swansea had all been annexed to Denver by the early 1900s.

Today, as trucks and cars inch their way past Cram’s house, she recalls when she first came to live on Josephine Street in Elyria-Swansea with her husband in 1951. Her first job in the area was with the railroads. Later, she started working for the stockyards and became a civic activist. The city plans to name a new road after her near the old stockyards.

Elyria-Swansea was once a vibrant community, she says, with shops and restaurants all along 46th Avenue. She could get most of what she needed in the area. Her house was built by local workers, and her children were delivered by local doctors. But in 1964, over the protests of her neighbors, the state completed the viaduct carrying I-70 over 46th Avenue, just two blocks from Cram’s house. After the interstate came, the stockyards began to lose business, and the neighborhood started to empty out.

Today, Elyria-Swansea is still dominated by industrial uses, and 18-wheel trucks barrel down its streets all the time. The most prominent landmark is a towering white Purina pet food factory along I-70 that gives off a pungent odor that floats over the interstate and throughout the neighborhood. But interspersed among the high fences and gravel driveways of the industrial sites are blocks of single-family homes like Cram’s that house most of the area’s 6,000 residents. Nearly all the homes are simple one-story houses with small porches, cluttered yards and waist-high chain-link fences. “It’s not a rich neighborhood,” she says, “but we have survived.”

After the freeway went up and the stockyards started their decline, immigrants from Mexico moved in and replaced the immigrants from Eastern Europe who originally settled the area. Despite its many faults, or more likely because of them, Elyria-Swansea is one of the only places to offer affordable housing anywhere near the center of the booming Denver metropolis. About 84 percent of Elyria-Swansea is Hispanic, and the average income there is about $44,000 a year. Four out of every 10 residents live below the poverty line.

One of the prices of affordable housing, though, is living in an area that’s been contaminated from decades of industrial use.

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated nearly all of Elyria-Swansea (and many surrounding neighborhoods) as a Superfund site. In its designation, the EPA cited high lead and arsenic levels from the historic smelting operations. The agency replaced contaminated soil in 800 residential lots, and offered testing for lead and arsenic poisoning. Still, in 2013, children in Elyria-Swansea were nearly five times more likely than children in Denver as a whole to show elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Obnoxious odors aside, the state says the air quality in Elyria-Swansea, on average, is no worse than in the rest of the Denver region. But it can vary day to day, or block to block, especially for auto exhaust pollution from the highway. The Sierra Club disputes the state’s assessment that the expanded interstate won’t create more air pollution, especially when it comes to dust from brakes and tires. When the EPA gave its approval for air quality to the I-70 project, the Sierra Club sued, arguing that the agency changed its criteria for Clean Air Act compliance without giving any warning.

People in Elyria-Swansea, like residents in other poor and predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and asthma than the overall city population. Children visit emergency rooms for asthma 39 percent more often than children in the entire city.

Nobody suggests that Interstate 70 is the sole reason for Elyria-Swansea’s many environmental and health woes. But a large swath of the community worries that making Interstate 70 bigger will make those environmental problems even worse.

Constructed in 1964, the existing viaduct is only expected to last another 10 years before it needs to be replaced.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower set off a highway building spree in 1956 when he signed the law that created the interstate system. But it wasn’t long after the frenzy began that the public, federal officials and eventually Congress began to rein it in. They were alarmed by plans engineers devised to build highways wherever they made travel efficient, even in the presence of environmentally fragile habitats, public parks, historic neighborhoods or minority communities. Over the course of the 1960s, officials started requiring highway builders to consult with the communities they would affect and to consider the environmental consequences of their projects. That culminated with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which President Richard Nixon signed on New Year’s Day of 1970, in part to signal a new era of environmental consciousness for the new decade.

The law gives residents of affected communities the right to weigh in on new projects that receive federal money, and requires agencies to assess the environmental impact. To its supporters, NEPA is frequently hailed as the Magna Carta of environmental law. For agencies that have to comply with it, such as state transportation departments, it is a source of deep frustration, one that they blame for seemingly endless delays.

The NEPA protections came too late to help Elyria-Swansea residents fight the original placement of the interstate through their neighborhood in 1964, but this time around, the NEPA process has led to a 14-year formal debate (plus at least two years of informal discussions) over whether and how to widen it. That process appears to have ended in January, when the U.S. Department of Transportation effectively gave Colorado the go-ahead.

But if the outlines of the project have remained the same over the past 16 years, the specifics have evolved. At first, CDOT planned to replace the aging viaduct with another viaduct. Now it is working on a “cut and cover” approach. It will dig a trench wide enough to hold 10 lanes of traffic through Elyria-Swansea, both to improve the aesthetics of the project and to avoid the physical barriers within the neighborhood that a huge new overpass would have created. Then it will build a new four-acre city park behind the Swansea Elementary School, over a small part of the highway, to host school soccer matches and other community events. CDOT originally proposed moving the school completely, but after objections from neighbors, it now plans to pay for new classrooms, air conditioning units and storm windows for the school, as well as for neighbors close to the interstate.

Colorado is also helping dislocated residents, including renters, with relocation costs. It is setting aside $2 million for affordable housing efforts and $100,000 to support city efforts to improve access to fresh food in the area. It is taking advantage of a pilot program offered by the federal government that will allow it to hire and train local workers for the I-70 project, the first program of its kind in the country. In a goodwill gesture, the state even helped organize a wall of murals by local artists underneath the existing overpass.

But there is one demand from residents that the state has never really considered: removing the interstate and replacing it with a boulevard.

Community activists in the area say this could be done by rerouting I-70 along existing highways to the north. They argue that motorists would hardly notice because it would add only a minute and a mile to the commute. “What we were proposing was that they would take this bridge down and turn this into a parkway,” says Candi CdeBaca, a local activist who grew up in the area and has been part of recent civil rights and environmental challenges to the project. CdeBaca thinks there is a simple reason why the boulevard idea was never considered. “It never manifested,” she says, “because it was a historically impoverished place.”

Candi CdeBaca lives in the house once owned by her grandmother. She is now fighting the interstate expansion.

Unite North Metro Denver, another advocacy group in the area, detailed what a new boulevard could look like: The street beneath the current viaduct would feature rows of trees, roundabouts and bike lanes. It would narrow through residential areas, as a way to make the community more walkable and to encourage freight traffic to use other arterial roads.

But Shailen Bhatt, executive director of CDOT, says the boulevard alternative is unrealistic for many reasons. CDOT doesn’t believe that the thousands of vehicles, particularly 18-wheeler trucks, that now travel along I-70 would use the alternate route neighborhood advocates propose. After 50 years of having the interstate in its current location, some 1,200 businesses rely on it for their operations. Those include the Safeway distribution center, the Purina plant, the two largest rail yards in the state and the Suncor oil refinery north of Elyria-Swansea. “The trucks going along this road are going to those businesses,” Bhatt says. “They don’t go away if the highway goes away. They just transfer to the street grid. Dozens of neighborhoods would be flooded” with new traffic.

The transportation department believes there would be no good way to pay for moving I-70 onto the route where the activists want to redirect traffic. By far the biggest source of funding for the expansion is $850 million from a special state fund that can only spend money on improving or replacing dilapidated bridges. The viaduct through Elyria-Swansea qualifies, as most segments are well beyond their 30-year anticipated life cycle. But that money would not be available to establish a different route.

Money is already constraining what CDOT can do with the project. The current intention is to add only one additional lane at first in each direction, rather than the two recommended in the long-term plans, in order to limit the initial cost. A private entity will design, build, operate and maintain the new highway -- including new tolled express lanes. But the new tolls won’t pay for the project directly. They’ll only cover maintenance costs. CDOT wants to use a private operator mostly to limit its potential risks for cost overruns in what promises to be a very complicated process of digging a new highway bed and demolishing the old viaduct, crossing railroad tracks and pipelines -- all while keeping traffic flowing.

Then there is the issue of time. It took Colorado a decade and a half to get this far with the proposal it has now. The state would have to go through the whole process all over again to expand I-70 in a different location. What’s more, the existing viaduct through Elyria-Swansea is not expected to last more than a decade without needing to be replaced. If the viaduct failed before its replacement was ready, CDOT would have to take emergency actions to fix it. That would mean replacing the old viaduct with a new one, an alternative the community has consistently rejected. “I have looked exhaustively at what, if any, options there are to not have I-70 there,” Bhatt says, “and it just doesn’t work.”

CDOT’s explanations do little to mollify opposition in the neighborhoods. “They don’t care. They just ignore us,” Cram says. Even Tom Anthony, an Elyria activist who championed putting I-70 underground in the first place, insists CDOT is going about it all wrong. He’s worried that the current plan won’t let local motorists get on and off the highway without going through a wall of traffic. Anthony says a better solution would be to have some of the highway below grade and some of it on a viaduct. “You get to the end of this 16-year planning process,” he says, “and you still have a dysfunctional plan.”

Emily and Graham Alexander-Thomson, who live just three houses from an interchange on I-70, are excited about the highway improvements, even if it means several years of inconvenience before they are completed. “More cars will come, and if there isn’t more road for them, it’s just going to be a bigger problem,” says Emily Alexander-Thomson. “We’re looking forward to having that thoroughfare not being such a bottleneck.” Her husband points to a long list of big projects slated for the area in the next few years, and he believes many of those will help improve Elyria-Swansea by better connecting it to the rest of the city, particularly downtown.

Indeed, the public sector is spending billions of dollars on improvements in North Denver, and the interstate expansion is a crucial component of most of them.

One of those projects is an $857 million plan to redevelop a 270-acre site around the old stockyards in Elyria, and make the National Western Center a year-round attraction, instead of just a destination for the annual stock show in January. The center would bring in programs from Colorado State University and local historical institutions to create a campus based around animal science and agriculture. A proposed new light rail stop would service the National Western Center and the northwestern corner of Elyria-Swansea. The city is also reconfiguring a major thoroughfare near the Western Center to make it more attractive and pedestrian-friendly.

Emily and Graham Alexander-Thomson: “We’re looking forward to having that thoroughfare not being such a bottleneck.”

All of this is a heady turn of events for a neighborhood that has long pined for such basic amenities as adequate street lighting, public transportation and even sidewalks to help people get to city parks. The sudden interest, though, has stoked fears of gentrification. Housing prices are already increasing in Elyria-Swansea at one of the fastest rates in the Denver region. The city helped finance a deal that will bring 560 units of new housing near the new light rail line, about half of which will be designated as affordable to try to ward off gentrification and displacement of current residents. But that will be no easy task. “It’s going to gentrify the neighborhood in a flash. It already has,” says Kristin Cardenas.

Cardenas is president of the parent-teacher organization at an elementary school in nearby Globeville, and, because she is bilingual and most of the other parents speak only Spanish, she often represents them in community organizations. She has worked with developers, CDOT and other builders bringing major projects to the area, pushing for more parks and better health services. As executive director of the Denver Arts and Skills Center, she is leading efforts to incorporate more art in public spaces, such as the murals under the interstate. She’s trying to promote art made by former prisoners. “I am not for the Central 70 project, but I am 100 percent committed to making sure that it is a community-based project,” she says, “because it is moving forward. Instead of fighting, I try to focus on all the good things and how to bring the community together.”

Even though she has good relationships with CDOT and the city, Cardenas wonders whether some of the community’s messages are getting through. In project after project, local residents have consistently said they want a new grocery store, because so many of them have had to rely on places like the Stop-N-Shop. But a series of development incentives have not been enough to lure a full-service grocery store to the neighborhood yet, she notes. Instead, most of the focus has been on adding farmer’s markets and other places to get fresh fruits and vegetables. “You’re talking about families that need a traditional grocery store,” she says. “I have to take a step back and wonder: How much is the community voice really being considered and taken into account?”

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