Colorado Department of Transportation is now focussing efforts on shovel-ready projects and getting money spent rather than stashing it for very expensive future projects, area CDOT representatives told county officials recently.
The focus also is on maintaining existing roads and improving efficiency, rather than adding new lanes to accommodate more vehicles. The new "continuous flow" left turn signal just south of the Double Tree intersection in Durango is one of those, CDOT Region 5 Director Kerrie Neet said.
"This is really the future of transportation, to operate our system more efficiently instead of adding more lanes," Neet said.
State Transportation Commissioner Sidny Zink from Durango said CDOT is shifting away from a philosophy of "We'll wait until this road deteriorates and then do a new road. The goal of surface treatment is to keep roads maintained at a level of service. It's a different philosophy adopted over the last couple years."
Neet said, "It's take care of what you have."
Engineer Tony Cady said, "We used to operate under a model of remaining surface life. That assumed a large pot of money to reconstruct roads. The result was roads in very poor condition that we couldn't do surface treatment on."
Zink said CDOT "used to bank money to do a project. Now, it's spend the money now and be in front of it instead of always behind."
CDOT has been anticipating an influx of new money under Senate Bill 228, triggered by growth of personal income of more than 5 percent. "There was the thought that we might have $200 million more for transportation over (each of) five years," but now it looks like state revenue growth could trigger a TABOR amendment declaration of "excess revenue" that must be returned somehow to taxpayers.
"The estimate might be cut in half. That's yet to be seen," Zink said. "Maybe people will see that maybe TABOR needs some re-working." Along with requiring voter approval for any tax increases, TABOR limits government revenue increases even without any increase in tax rate, unless the government entity's voters have approved an exemption, known as de-Brucing.
Neet said Region 5 covers 14.5 counties, 14 mountain passes, and some of the biggest geographic challenges.
From July 2012 through June 2013, Region 5 spent $11.46 million on maintenance, snow plowing, and other activities, with the largest single share (almost $3.4 million) in La Plata County. Spokeswoman Nancy Shanks told the Times that for July 2013 through June 2014, Region 5 maintenance spending totaled around $14 million.
CDOT has a complicated funding system, with money designated for specific project categories, such as intersections, surface treatment, bridges, and safety. When one region doesn't use money that has been allotted, it may be re-directed elsewhere to shovel-ready projects.
CDOT engineer Mike McVaugh said, "We've gotten really good at grabbing money when they can't spend it." He cited planned redevelopment of the east end of County Road 223 access onto Highway 160. "We've been working on the design for some time, for when money becomes available. We have to totally re-design the intersection. It will be around $15 million."
He continued, "I got a call from Denver that, 'We have $10 million, can you spend it quickly?'... We got $5.6 million because other people aren't spending their money." He indicated this will be used for a wildlife underpass and fencing. "We'll phase it. It's having all the ducks ready to grab the money on short notice." The local engineering staff is very good at that, he said.
Shanks clarified to the Times that there is no current funding for the CR 223 intersection. There is funding for the wildlife underpass and fencing west of the 223 intersection.
Engineer Ed Archuleta said the wildlife project will go out for bid this winter for construction in 2015, and another part of that is ready if money becomes available.
He said surface treatment from Bayfield to Yellowjacket Pass will be advanced to 2015, "two years of project in one." It's budgeted at $6.75 million for phase 1 and $3.5 million for phase 2.
Another pending project is the downtown Ignacio stoplight, budgeted at $1.8 million. The cost share is $1.43 million from CDOT, $180,000 each from the county and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and $10,000 from the town. This is a CDOT RAMP grant project, part of the effort to get money out and get projects done instead of saving up for future projects.
McVaugh thanked the county for partnering on that. "We're making good progress on the design," he said. "We may be able to accelerate it by a year from 2016," which means the county share of funding might be needed in 2015. The design work is about 30 percent done, he said.
He reported the Access Control Plan for Gem Village through Bayfield is 60 to 75 percent done. CDOT met recently with Gem Village residents and has another open house on Oct. 23 to focus on the Commerce Drive intersection.
Project priorities include reducing congestion and travel time. McVaugh said the Doubletree intersection topped that list in Region 5. With the new left turn configuration, he said, "We think we can reduce congestion 20 percent with what we've just done."
McVaugh said, "So far I'm really happy with the way it appears to be working." Comparing travel times, he said that previously in summer, cars turning left to go west on Hwy. 160 would back up for 1,000 feet or more at peak times. Now it's five to eight cars.
Zink said there are "very positive talks going on" about a route to connect the "Bridge to Nowhere" interchange to Highway 550 south to replace the current Farmington Hill road. "It all boils down to money and funding availability," she said. The cost estimate is $91 million, with $1 million now available for right-of-way and design. The interchange has cost around $47 million so far.
Neet said, "There's been a big effort to get all stakeholders on the same page."
She and Cady referred to a route that contours around the west side of the mesa instead of over the top. The main affected landowners like it, Cady said, but it still needs Corps of Engineers sign-off as the least environmentally damaging option. "We are in that process now," he said. U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the State Historic Preservation Office also are involved.
Neet said the Environmental Impact Analysis of route alternatives has to be re-worked. A federal Record of Decision is expected in January. Demonstrated community support for this route "could help move it forward if there's funding through SB 228," she said.