Concern about compliance with environmental laws spurred request from Federal Highway Adminstration
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Planning for I-70 improvements is moving at a pace something like the traffic down to Denver on a Sunday afternoon, Michael Penny said at a transportation forum in Frisco Thursday evening,
He explained that federal officials recently asked the state highway department to re-release a 2,500-page environmental study in a “citizen-friendly” format.
“Two weeks ago, the feds came in and said they don’t like the way it’s going with regard to NEPA,” said Penny, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, an over-riding federal law that outlines how environmental studies are conducted and the rules for public involvement.
Penny, who is chair of the I-70 Coalition and also Frisco town manager, was speaking at a roundtable presented by Our Future Summit. He explained that the Federal Highway Administration was concerned that the draft study for I-70 was getting too detailed. Moving away from the NEPA framework could lead to a lawsuit later in the process, Penny explained.
The new-look version of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement should be released toward the end of this year, along with the final version of the preferred alternative.
“They wanted us to stay within the NEPA process and go back to the 30,000-foot level,” Penny said. The draft study is intended to be a broad overview of the entire scope of the project. Before any on-the-ground work begins, more site-specific reviews will be required. For example, the studies for improvements in the critical area between the Twin Tunnels and Floyd Hill might take another five years.
“I’m truly not pessimistic, but people just need to understand the process,” Penny said.
To speed up the process, Penny said the I-70 Coalition is encouraging the Colorado Department of Transportation start thinking ahead.
“We’re trying to get CDOT to put some of their local dollars into this,” said. As an example, he explained that CDOT has hired engineers to start redesigning the Silverthorne interchange.
“You have to have engineered projects sitting on the shelf for that moment when the money comes through,” Penny said.
The I-70 project as a whole would be the single largest construction project in the nation’s history, dwarfing other recent well-known transit projects like the Boston’s Big Dig. The total price tag for I-70 corridor improvements from Golden to Glenwood Springs is estimated at about $20 billion.
And Penny said the process — as long as it’s taken up to now — was the easy part.
“We’re about to hit the real hurdle — money,” he said.
“If you’re Congress, where are you going to put the money? It’s not going to happen because 30,000 people in Summit County want it to happen. Colorado has to get behind it. We have to say that we value this as a state,” he said.
Unless Colorado is willing to pony up at least 20 percent of the total cost, there’s no chance the federal government will ever come up with funding for I-70, Penny said.
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