A rendering of the grassy Central 70 highway cover through north Denver. Colorado Department of Transportation

The FHWA’s decision on ‘Central 70’ came on the eve of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, which is surely no coincidence.

The highway project splitting Denver apart is officially moving forward.

On Thursday, the Federal Highway Administration issued its record of decision on “Central 70,” a $1.2 billion plan to rebuild a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 70 that runs through working-class neighborhoods north of downtown Denver. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2018, according to a press release by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

I dove deep into this project in a recent CityLab feature. To recap the details: CDOT proposes to tear down the viaduct that currently carries I-70 traffic through Denver, and instead lower traffic below grade. It would also widen the road from six lanes to ten. But the most profound changes would be seen in the heart of a community called Elyria-Swansea, where a four-acre “highway cap” would be built on top of the sunken highway. The cap would function as a grassy public space, and also as a “reconnection” for a neighborhood that had long been split from the city.

The decision ends an environmental review process that lasted an “unprecedented” 14 years, according to a CDOT press release. During that time, more than 90 design proposals and alignments were introduced before the “cut-and-cover” alternative was settled on. According to CDOT, the final design is the result of countless hours of community engagement and feedback. And a number of locals would likely agree.

But some of those residents would also say that a proposal to reroute the Interstate should have been more closely considered. Like so many urban highways, the viaduct has entrenched long-standing economic and ethnic divisions between the neighborhoods it borders and the rest of the city. Critics say that rather than “reconnect” the communities, Central 70 could exacerbate its disconnection—by widening the physical barrier that cuts through the neighborhoods, displacing more residents, and potentially hastening gentrification pressures.

In fact, a federal complaint filed by three community advocacy groups alleges that the Central 70 project “will result in disparate and severe environmental and economic impacts on the predominantly Latino communities of Elyria-Swansea and Globeville”—and should thus be blocked from receiving federal funds. A U.S. DOT investigation has been underway for a month, but officials have not yet released the findings. Experts have told me that if they do discover that the project has a disparate impact, it could have lasting implications for future highway projects impacting minority neighborhoods.

The record of decision from the FHWA more or less cements the basic elements of the highway design in place, although federal investigators could still require CDOT to improve its community engagement process, says Rebecca White, the CDOT spokesperson for Central 70. Candi CdeBaca, who leads one of the local organizations listed on the federal complaint, says she thinks it’s “comical” that the FHWA would issue their decision to fund the project ahead of the investigation’s results. Her group will likely move ahead with a lawsuit challenging CDOT’s environmental review process—which could prove an additional stumbling block before the contentious project. An air quality impact lawsuit against the EPA by the Sierra Club could also still trip it up.

If the epic Central 70 story has any one lesson, it might be this one: Even big infrastructure projects with the best of intentions can still hurt vulnerable communities, and even projects that promise to mend old divides can deepen them.

That the FHWA’s decision came on the eve of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration is surely no coincidence. Under outgoing Secretary Anthony Foxx, the DOT has put justice and equity issues at the front and center of its mission. Central 70 may be a deeply flawed project, but future alternatives could prove to be far worse.

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