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Highway robbery

El Paso County still not even close to getting promised highway dollars


Traffic jams along I-25 are likely to become a more - common sight. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Traffic jams along I-25 are likely to become a more common sight.

Tired of being stuck in traffic? Get used to it.

Six years after Gov. Bill Owens promised El Paso County more than half a billion dollars to expand and improve highways, the bulk of the money has yet to materialize.

A referendum to relax state spending limits, approved by voters early this month, will result in some new funding for local highway projects -- but not much. And the county's representatives at the state Legislature will have to fight for a fair share of the money, which might be difficult considering that most of them opposed the measure, known as Referendum C.

"I'm hopeful," says Terry Schooler, the county's representative on the Colorado Transportation Commission, when asked if passage of the referendum would significantly boost local projects. But, he adds, "I'm not too optimistic."

Gobbled up by T-REX

In 1999, Colorado voters approved a proposal pushed by Gov. Owens to borrow up to $1.7 billion to jump-start highway projects across the state.

The voters were promised that the money would go toward 24 specific projects that would cost a total of $4.5 billion. El Paso County was to receive about $550 million for three projects: two that would upgrade Interstate 25 through the Colorado Springs metro area, and one that would expand Powers Boulevard on the city's east side.

But then, the state's economy tanked. As first reported by the Independent in October 2002, the biggest chunk of that cash was gobbled up by T-REX, the project to expand Interstate 25 through Denver. The majority of projects elsewhere, including El Paso County, were put on hold.

In 2003, when the last of the money was doled out, local officials landed $150 million for a downsized version of the promised I-25 upgrade through the Springs, to be known as the COSMIX project, which now is under construction.

The original promise had called for an eight-lane interstate from Briargate Parkway to Circle Drive, and six lanes between Monument and Briargate. COSMIX includes just six lanes from North Academy Boulevard to Circle.

Meanwhile, the Powers project still is short $150 million.

"We're still looking for the $550 million that voters approved in '99," says Rob MacDonald, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, which coordinates the region's transportation planning.

So far, he says, what the state has provided is "not even close" to what it promised.

Up in the air

Earlier this month, voters again were asked to cough up money. Referendum C proposed that state government be allowed to spend more money for the next five years, while Referendum D called for borrowing money to build roads and to improve and maintain schools and college buildings.

Referendum D included money to upgrade I-25's interchanges at Highway 24 and at Highway 16, near the south entrance to Fort Carson.

The latter suddenly became a top priority this year, when the Pentagon announced that it will boost the number of soldiers at Fort Carson from about 16,000 to more than 25,000.

"We've got a huge problem," Schooler says of the interchange, where traffic frequently is backed up onto I-25. "It's only gonna get worse."

But while state voters approved C, they defeated D. And El Paso County voters rejected both.

Even so, officials say the money generated from Referendum C will increase highway funding. But how much, and who will get the money, is up to the state Legislature.

Getting a fair share could be tough for El Paso County. Not only did local voters say, "No, thanks," to the money; 12 of the county's 13 lawmakers also opposed both referendums. Moreover, the 12 belong to the Republican Party at the statehouse, which is controlled by Democrats.

The only local lawmaker to back both measures, Democratic Rep. Mike Merrifield, says he'll fight for the county's highway dollars but acknowledges, "We are a bit handicapped."

Sen. Doug Lamborn, a Republican, argues that although he and others fought the proposals, it wouldn't be fair for the Legislature to punish the whole county. "There were precincts within El Paso County where C and D passed," he notes.

Mind-boggling growth

Indeed, with strong support from local movers and shakers, including Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera and most of the City Council, Referendum C won backing from 47 percent of county voters -- more than many had dared to hope.

"I don't see El Paso County being punished," Schooler predicts.

Local officials already are working to secure funds for the Fort Carson interchange, expected to cost $50 million. Money from Referendum C, combined with federal dollars, could be enough to start the project next year, MacDonald believes.

"It will be funded," he vows.

As for other projects, officials are less confident. The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments has forecast that by 2025, the annual number of miles driven by area motorists will jump 72 percent from 2000 levels. Meanwhile, the number of paved road miles will grow by just 9 percent.

"That's just mind-boggling, isn't it?" Schooler asks.

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