The Central 70 project, a $ 1.2 billion company that has kept the Globeville / Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods in northern Denver in a state of constant noise and building for the past four years, was controversial from the start.
In 2008 the Interstate 70 viaduct was declared structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. But it was almost three decades before that when road construction engineers realized the viaduct needed repair, said Stacia Sellers, project spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
"We have only been doing damage control since about the 1980s," she said. "That means you go in and make guard rails, fix potholes and do whatever you can to maintain the motorway so that people can still drive on it."
Two hundred thousand vehicles drive the 55-year-old viaduct every day, which according to Sellers has reached its maximum capacity.
When the Colorado Department of Transportation made plans to widen I-70 from six to eight lanes and bury a 1,000-foot section underground, they admitted that they had families experiencing a similar upheaval in the 1960s, Difficulties again The original section of the interstate first separated the districts.
"If we were to put in an intergovernmental system by today's standards … I-70 would not have been community built. We want to correct some of those mistakes made in 1964," Sellers said. "So they are removing the viaduct and bringing it back I-70 in the underground. "
The expansion project will add an expressway in each direction on the 10 mile stretch from Colorado to Brighton Boulevards, with space for another expressway on either side.
As of this month, CDOT employees have signed up 3 million hours for the major project. Road works saw more than 504,000 tons of concrete poured in and more than 1.7 million cubic meters of dirt excavated while 15 ramps to and from I-70 were reconstructed. Two bridges are finished, 16 more have yet to be completed.
These lanes are toll roads, but the price has not yet been set. The money collected from the toll will be used to operate and maintain the express lanes.
"The rest of the toll revenue will be excessive," Sellers told the Denver Gazette. Some residents had hoped that CDOT would put the leftover money back into the GES neighborhood. However, Sellers said the Attorney General does not allow the surplus to be spent on non-explicit lane-related expenses.
29,000 feet of new sidewalk were laid in the neighborhood. A "lid" built to cover the highway will have a 4 acre park with playgrounds and a soccer field.
Vendors said the park will be linked to Swansea Elementary so that students can use the park during school hours. She added that there will be picnic tables and a splash pad for kids to play on.
“Do you know what I call this park? I call it lipstick on a pig, ”said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, who moved to the area in 2007 because he said it was the only part of Denver he could afford. "It's very nice what you did for school. You should. But you lay grass over a freeway and your developing kids can play on it. Great. You wouldn't do that in a white, affluent neighborhood."
Some of Dutcher's neighbors see things differently.
“These people are complaining all the time. They are never satisfied, ”said Salvadore Blea, whose two houses are half a block from where the park is entered and which are among the few who actually have grass in their front yard. "It's going to be like Disneyland," he told the Denver Gazette.
COMMUNITY AND LEGAL BATTLES
The main point of contention for the GES community was not the cover or the crumbling viaduct, but the location of the motorway. They organized by demanding that the highway be moved four miles north instead of widening it. In 2010, residents started a campaign called "Ditch the Ditch" that would have diverted I-70 north along Interstate 76 to Commerce City, where it would meet Interstate 270. These efforts found no support.
Local residents who opposed the Central 70 project also tried to fight it through the court system.
In March 2016, the Sierra Club, the Elyria-Swansea Neighborhood Association, Citizens for Greater Denver, and Cross Community Coalition filed a lawsuit against the EPA, alleging the project violated air quality standards.
In it, Earthjustice argued that widening the highway would break community cohesion, which had been fragile since the highway was built.
"The neighborhood is 83.8% Latinos and 44.4% low-income people and has been identified as the most polluted zip code in Colorado," the complaint said.
Several other lawsuits followed aimed at halting the Central 70 project. Except for one of them, the final decisions were made in favor of CDOT and the city of Denver.
The agreement included a $ 550,000 reserve for a community health study. CDOT agreed to provide aerial surveillance, more trees, and promises to communicate with residents in English and Spanish.
"CDOT didn't even look at it. They did a 1½ page analysis and that's what we got," said Dennis Royer, an independent transportation and public works consultant who has participated in several lawsuits. "It's done. We lost the battle. "
CDOT laid the foundation stone for the I-70 expansion project in August 2018. To this end, 56 houses and 17 companies were demolished and families (at the expense of the motorway department) were relocated to other parts of the city. The bungalows that were still standing were unfortunate neighbors in a large construction project that caused dust, noise and disruption.
Leon Santinallos & # 39; mother, who has lived in her home at 4642 York Street for 42 years, pulled the unfortunate straw. Today the street was torn out and the porch has a huge crack under the front window. Santinallos understands that it's not the Kiewit construction workers' fault, but he complains to them weekly.
“They have a job to do. But we live here. You don't live here, ”he said. “So I have to get out there and yell at her. The house trembles and trembles, especially in the basement. I finally took all of my pictures off the walls because they kept falling and there was glass everywhere. That was a good neighborhood a long time ago. "
A huge plastic-wrapped pipe lay in the excavated street just 100 feet from Santinallos & # 39; front door. Kiewit representative Megan Wood said these are old gas pipes made with asbestos and being replaced.
"Some of the abandoned utilities had asbestos materials," she told the Denver Gazette. "So that was a mitigation process."
According to Wood, Kiewit hired a general contractor to carry out the work and there is no risk that the deadly fibers will harm the Santinallos family or their neighbors. "They have a tent to make sure there is no asbestos fiber in the area."
Emily Clarke, who oversees public relations and outreach at Kiewit, is the person who takes complaints from homeowners like Santinallos. She said damage to homes near the construction will be considered for refund.
"In order to properly assess owners' concerns about construction, Kiewit conducted initial property surveys on houses directly adjacent to the project," she said. "In this way, the contractor can determine whether there is damage due to construction activities and whether repairs are necessary."
She says most of her complaints involve below average road conditions. “Road wear is the biggest thing we see. Things like potholes and fading streaks. "
Dutcher said his days were an endless stream of dust and noise. "I look out of my window at large construction machines with huge jaws that they use to devour the crash barriers on the freeway to demonstrate," he said.
CDOT placed four air quality monitors across the region and agreed to contribute $ 2 million in affordable housing. It pledged to hire 20% of its community construction workers, but acknowledged that this is still not enough for some.
"I think on any transportation project, obviously, you're never going to get 100% of people to be happy with it," she said.
Today the project is almost halfway through. Traffic will move to the lowered section by late summer 2021 and be in its final configuration by the end of 2022. The next major hurdle is the demolition of the 50-year-old viaduct that shoulders the elevated portion of the freeway at 49th Avenue and York Street.
Sellers said a team of engineers preparing to demolish the viaduct will soon be filing permits with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. They model the shutdown and destruction following the demolition of the 60-year-old Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, where the Washington State Department of Transportation used jackhammers, concrete saws, and cranes to gradually dismantle it. This project started in February 2019 and finished seven months later.
The 56-year-old viaduct has been the focus of a lot of back-and-forth movement since the initial discussion about the expansion. Royer claims the viaduct was used as an excuse to keep I-70 where it is and expand it instead of moving it to Adams County. He claims a well-maintained viaduct should last up to 100 years.
“CDOT started this project in 2003. At the time, the viaduct was 39 years old. After 39 years, how does CDOT say it needs to be abolished? They said it was in bad shape. Of course, it's in poor shape as CDOT doesn't do any maintenance. "
Seller says the viaduct is in a constant state of repair.
"The viaduct was built in 1964. It is not unsafe," she said, but it is classified as structurally deficient. "That sounds a bit scary, but it isn't. That means we are constantly doing maintenance repairs and it needs to be replaced. CDOT would never put motorists on an unsafe road."
Many CDOT critics agree with the sellers that the crumbling viaduct should fall down. But they say the real battle was lost when I-70 was even built in their backyards.
"The original crime was taking I-70 through Globeville / Elyria-Swansea and condemning the neighborhood for a future that was less vibrant than the rest of the city," said Dutcher. On the expanded project, he added, "And now they are using a 1960s solution to a 21st century problem."
University of Colorado-Denver professor emeritus Tom Noel said he had mixed feelings about the expanded freeway, with its promises of parks, soccer fields and tree-lined streets.
"There are improvements and there will be more freeway space," he told the Denver Gazette. "I don't know exactly what it will look like in many years. The autobahn will probably be just as congested as the old one."
Rocky Piro, who saw his own family relocate at the expense of progress, became the Denver City Planning Director and is currently the director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism. He has firsthand knowledge of the impact of community operations on highways.
"It's not just postcodes," he said sadly. "These are real neighborhoods."
University of Colorado News Corps journalists Tayler Shaw and Tory Lysik contributed to this report