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City says it’s making an effort to coordinate road closures

Road to nowhere

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A part of Pikes Peak Avenue remains closed to install a new storm drain and water main. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • A part of Pikes Peak Avenue remains closed to install a new storm drain and water main.
We’ve all been there. Stuck. Going nowhere. Piled in a long line of cars.

In the past two years, with the help of $50 million a year from the voter-approved 2C sales tax for roads, cone zones have become the norm in Colorado Springs. Add on the crush of tourist traffic, closures from special events, building construction, and state, county and Colorado Springs Utilities projects, and you have a recipe for traffic jams from hell.

Perhaps more infuriating is that it can appear that government officials aren’t thinking about the impacts these projects have on drivers. This reporter, for instance, has noted that throughout this summer, it seems as though every major road from Point A to Point B is either closed or in slowdown mode in some areas. Take the well-worn tourist route from downtown Colorado Springs to Manitou Springs.

Cimarron Street/U.S. 24 has long been under construction by the Colorado Department of Transportation at the Interstate 25 intersection. But try to avoid that mess by taking Colorado Avenue, and you’ll run into at least one major construction project — the multi-jurisdictional redesign of the road in No Man’s Land just east of Manitou Springs that’s being funded by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales tax. Opt instead to take Uintah Street for most of your journey, and you’ll still run into road construction — this time from a project that’s included both the city and Colorado Springs Utilities.

Fun times.

And coordination seems to be lacking. On May 3, a county contractor tore down the Sunflower Motel to make room for its project on Colorado Avenue — in the middle of the morning rush hour on a weekday — causing delays. But any Manitou driver who saw that mess ahead and tried to take the U.S. 24 on-ramp just west of the project was disappointed — it was closed for road repair on the very same morning.

Then there was the Aug. 10 Colorado Classic bike race, which closed roads all over downtown and the Westside on a weekday from approximately 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Add that onto the heavy road construction already underway (which was halted around the race but still left roads in poor condition) and you had a traffic nightmare that stretched far beyond the impacted area and left business owners in downtown and Old Colorado City hollering about lost sales.

And that’s just in the main tourism area. Road construction is going on citywide.

But city employees in charge of these projects say they aren’t ignoring its impacts — they really are trying to make this as simple for commuters as possible — but that’s no easy task.

City Streets Program Supervisor Michael Hensley says that while drivers might be frustrated, he spends a mind-numbing amount of time in meetings trying to coordinate road closures in order to leave workable routes.

“We’re in a continual coordination schedule with as many of the stakeholders as we possibly can,” he says, including other governments, Utilities, contractors and special events.

Contractors are all plugged in to a traffic engineering plan, while there’s a separate process to coordinate events — job sites surrounding such events are temporarily closed, though roads still may not be open if they aren’t drivable. But there’s a lot to juggle, he says, everything from capital projects to bridges to Utilities fixes to other government road projects. (For weekly updates, check the city’s Cone Zone Map at ColoradoSprings.gov/conezones.)

“We’re trying to play nice in the sandbox with everybody,” he says.

2C also brought a promise of a lot of work to be done each year — so the sheer volume of projects, which have been deferred for years due to budget woes, makes it difficult to ease the burden on drivers. So far this season, 2C has paved 137 lane miles of road (of 242 lane miles scheduled for the year); replaced 114,595 linear feet of curb and gutter and 230,149 square feet of sidewalk; added 71 new pedestrian ramps and retrofitted another 667. And the city only recently passed the midpoint of the 2017 season.
Roads are generally prioritized across the city by condition, but bad roads sometimes have to wait for repaving in order to allow Utilities to repair their infrastructure, curb and gutter to be laid, underground stormwater infrastructure to be repaired, or a major capital project to be completed. Repaving before those other projects would mean ripping up a new road or leaving it vulnerable to failure. Unfortunately for drivers, that process can drag out the time a cone zone is in place.

Take Uintah, Hensley says. That road was scheduled for repaving last year. But the water mains under the street were failing, so Utilities had to do their work first. Then the city repaired its stormwater system to support the road, now it’s repairing curbs and gutters to prevent water from seeping under the pavement and destroying the road. Soon, he says, they’ll finally get around to repaving the street. So a project that was originally supposed to be done last year has taken a full year longer to complete.

And something like that — which causes a delay — can throw off an entire schedule, leading to multiple road closures in an area all at once.

Other delays can simply be caused by weather. All the rain we had this summer threw off schedules for construction, impacting, among other things, the plan for the Colorado Classic, Carly Kobasiar, the city’s special events supervisor, explains. With construction stalled during those downpours, some road projects were halted, compounding problems when the race came around. And Kobasiar says it didn’t help that the event required unusually long road closures on a weekday.

“Every event is a lesson learned,” she says.

But Kobasiar says the city is not making any effort to winnow its list of special events in light of the road construction. Many events, she says, are signature affairs that people look forward to, and that draw visitors. And even smaller events, she says, are important, since many support nonprofits that have come to rely on them. So while the city does have to consider whether it has the resources to close roads for events, and it does try to limit the impact to certain areas, often encouraging event planners to use less-used parks and areas, she says the city has no interest in curtailing events in the Springs, even given the headaches the road closures cause.

And she adds, “We haven’t had any specific issues or complaints related to it.”

By the way, while the summer road construction and events season is mercifully coming to a close, there’s still plenty more delays on the way. Major events, like the 2017 Colorado Springs Marathon on Sept. 30, will lead to more road closures. And while Hensley says downtown and Westside drivers and tourists will get something of a break from road construction in 2018, it will be back in 2019. He urges drivers to be careful around workers.

Hensley notes that really, this level of construction shouldn’t even be considered unusual. With 2C funds, the road budget is at an average funding level for a city its size based on industry standards. If 2C is renewed after its five-year sunset, the pace won’t slow, since roads are constantly damaged or worn down. But a renewal would likely enable the city to focus on repairing residential streets, which impact fewer people than the major arterials being repaired now, but are a bigger nuisance for those living right next to the projects.

“It will never end,” he says of the work. “It can’t.”

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