A whopping study from the Colorado Department of Transportation that began more than two years ago is expected to wrap up this month, and it's got big proposals for Castle Rock and surrounding areas.
Think a version of Denver's Union Station in Castle Rock, expanded Bustang bus service, rail transit along Interstate 25 and a bolstered highway system flowing people from the Denver metro area through Castle Rock and down to Colorado Springs.
The Planning and Environmental Linkages study, or PEL, began in January 2017 but was temporarily shelved so CDOT could expedite its work on what's called the Gap, a notorious 18-mile stretch of I-25 between Castle Rock and Monument known for delays and crashes.
Early work in the study, officially called the I-25 PEL: Colorado Springs Denver South Connection, spurred CDOT's work on the Gap that's now underway, said I-25 South Corridor Manager Chuck Attardo with CDOT. Among several changes, CDOT is widening the road with an express lane in each direction.
Work resumed on the PEL around July and examined highway improvements for an area about twice the size of the Gap work zone. The Federal Highway Administration also assisted in the study.
“For all intents and purposes, we should be done by Halloween,” Attardo said of the PEL.
It's important to note a PEL study produces a strategic plan for transportation in a given area. The study does not identify funding for its suggestions, although it estimates costs. Numerous other steps, like undergoing a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, would need to come before projects could get official approvals.
Still, the PEL gives a broad overview of how CDOT thinks transportation should be improved between Monument and Denver, with Castle Rock in the heart of it all.
The full document is hefty — about 5,000 pages with all the appendixes accounted for. People can review the study from start to finish once it's posted to CDOT's website. An executive summary was made available at the Oct. 15 Castle Rock town council meeting and on crgov.com and whittles the key points into a 15-page document.
The PEL has three major recommendations: making improvements to the highway between Monument and Lone Tree, bringing more transit to the corridor and working on what's called “supplemental elements,” or small fixes to the interstate that can be made before long-term projects finish.
An example of supplemental elements would be adding a truck climbing lane from Greenland to Monument, where trucks gain 800 feet in elevation. CDOT has already secured funding for that project.
Some recommendations could come to fruition in the near future while others might take upward of two decades to start.
The nitty gritty
When it comes to improving the highway, the initial proposal is more express lanes. CDOT recommends extending the express lanes being built on the Gap just south of Castle Rock all the way to Lone Tree, specifically to the interchange for C-470 and E-470.
CDOT doesn't know when the proposed express lanes might happen and expects it would cost between $900 million and $1.2 billion to do.
“We're searching for that money. We may not get that for the next three months, a year, 10 years, who knows,” Attardo said.
A later phase of highway improvements recommends adding another travel lane the entire length of the corridor, from Monument to Lone Tree.
CDOT hasn't designated how that lane would be operated, whether it could be a general-purpose lane, express lane or neither. By that time, there may be autonomous vehicles on the road, Attardo said, and the lane could be needed to support them.
The PEL recommends improving transit by expanding Bustang bus services and bringing rail to the area.
“We still hear from folks up and down the corridor, we need better bus and rail service,” Attardo said.
It's unclear from the PEL what type of rail might come to the area, whether that be high-speed or commuter rail, if recommendations to pursue that mode of transit progress.
In the study, CDOT didn't “dig into the rails as much as we really wanted to,” Attardo said. He pointed to a forthcoming service plan and environmental study from the Front Range Passenger Range Commission, which may determine how to bring rail services along I-25 in the corridor.
The commission coordinates local governments in maintaining and expanding rail services and facilitates development of a Front Range Passenger Rail system.
But this leads to what he called “one of the more sexy things” among the PEL's recommendations — a mobility hub in Castle Rock.
Attardo said he anticipates a mobility hub in the growing interstate town could become reality within three to five years.
On the grander scale, that's a center akin to Denver's Union Station, Attardo said, or similar facilities in major cities.
A robust mobility hub would accommodate both bus and rail travel and be surrounded by amenities for people to enjoy date night or relax before traveling. It might take several phases to build and rack up a $30 million to $40 million price tag by the time it's done.
But a mobility hub could also be done on a smaller scale. A less elaborate facility might only accommodate bus service and cost around $2 million.
CDOT has examined locations in Castle Rock that accommodate both visions and narrowed the list down to three spots.
For a grander mobility hub, CDOT is looking at a property between the Wolfensberger and Founders/Meadows interchange owned by the Walker family.
For a smaller hub, they're eyeing a location at I-25 and Wolfensberger that could easily house a simpler and cheaper hub, Attardo said.
A third location was near the county administration buildings on Third Street, but Attardo said this is the least feasible of the three options.
“If you're talking something big and grand and a huge mobility hub, we would probably phase that first, start with just bringing bus in there, and that sort of thing is maybe in the $10 million range,” he said.
Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray said a mobility hub in town "would be fantastic." A large-scale hub incorporating rail service wouldn't likely come to fruition until "2045, 2050 or beyond," he said, but he's glad the town is looking that far into the future.
"They have more of those in more urban areas. We have to figure out if it works here in Castle Rock," he said. "I think it's a great idea."
Funding for transit-related projects would likely come from sources like vehicle registration fees and Senate Bill 267, a 2018 Colorado law to fund transportation infrastructure projects.
Larger projects like the express lanes or highway improvement will require a bigger haul — partnerships and multiple funding sources.
“You don't fund a $1 billion project without partnerships,” Attardo said.
The PEL says express lanes and transit are needed to fend off projected congestion and safety concerns along the corridor, two issues already top of mind for travelers.
The overarching goals are to improve safety, better manage incidents, improve travel time reliability and improve mobility — and to prevent an emergency situation like what the Gap became.
According to the PEL study, the area is important because everyone from local residents to visitors, commuters and military personnel uses the stretch frequently, and it provides “the main travel link” between Denver and Colorado Springs.
“Dramatic population increases in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas in recent years have put an immense strain on I-25 between these two major Front Range cities,” the executive summary says.
The area saw more than 4,700 crashes between 2011 and 2015, including 785 vehicle-wildlife collisions. While it should take 30 minutes to travel the corridor, that sometimes slows to roughly two hours when issues like crashes, weather or special events cause delays.
The executive summary says traffic volumes are expected to increase 50% by 2040. Castle Rock, the county seat in Douglas County, is expected to reach a population of 90,000 by 2030 and between 130,000 and 150,000 at full buildout.
“Castle Rock is growing and so the volume of traffic that's going to be hitting that road is going to continue to grow,” said Town Councilmember George Teal, who sat on the PEL steering committee when it launched. “In Castle Rock, we are trying to mitigate that mostly by trying to attract primary employers to the town.”
Scrutiny and debate
The study gathered feedback from local leaders, residents, business leaders and other members of the public. Some of that feedback included concerns with the proposals, which the executive summary highlights briefly.
Should CDOT invest in transit instead of building more highway lanes? Why more express lanes?
As CDOT worked on planning the Gap improvements, express lanes were met with fierce opposition at open houses, from members of the public and from elected leaders, like El Paso County commissioners who advocated for adding a general-purpose lane.
CDOT maintains in the study, as it did during the Gap process and echoed again by Attardo, that express lanes provide a reliable trip. The executive summary also states express lanes support other types of transit, like the Bustang bus service. Attardo also argued they help CDOT meet air quality standards.
“How the heck do you solve the transportation problems without express lanes,” he said. “There's just no other way we can do it right now.”
CDOT sought a letter of support from the Town of Castle Rock for the PEL study at the Oct. 15 council meeting, as it's also done with neighboring stakeholders.
Council approved the letter with one contingency — that CDOT end the toll lanes at Plum Creek Parkway on the south edge of town, and not extend them to Lone Tree.
Mayor Pro Tem Jason Bower and Councilmember James Townsend were absent. Teal urged the condition. He doesn't agree with allowing people “who can pay for it” to buy the convenience of an express lane while leaving others to rely on general purpose lanes.
“I understand where the state is coming from,” Teal said, adding, “I think it kind of hinders this concept we've had around the interstate highway systems, of having an open road, having a freeway.”
Attardo said the PEL recommends express lanes that allows HOVs, or carpooling vehicles traveling with three people, for free. The bus service can also use the the lane for free.
Gray said he too anticipates opposition to more express lanes in the area. He understands why, and said CDOT will "have to look at the study real hard and see what makes sense." He'd prefer that lanes not have any sort of restriction, whether that be a toll or in the form of an HOV lane.
Still, he'd support an HOV lane over nothing, he said.
"It's an amenity and it's an amount of progress that I'm still in favor of," Gray said.
This story has been updated with comments from Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray.
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