When the City of Englewood will be ready to move ahead with two major bridge and road projects is uncertain, officials said, after higher than projected costs put the plans on hold.
“Costs are rising," said Englewood Mayor Othoniel Sierra. “It’s something that we need to figure out a way to get done.”
The city had aimed to replace the aging South Broadway bridge over U.S. Highway 285, add a new lane for traffic both ways and create a new pedestrian bridge at the crossing of Oxford Avenue between Santa Fe Drive and Navajo Street/Windermere Street, a notoriously busy intersection.
The latest cost estimates were $14.9 million for the Broadway and 285 project and $2 million for the Oxford Avenue project, according to city spokesperson Chris Harguth, with money coming from city, state and federal funds.
But bids from contractors were beyond what the city could pay, officials said. The lowest bid for the Broadway and 285 project was more than $4.6M over budget, while the lowest for the Oxford Avenue bridge was $600,000 over budget, according to officials.
Now city leaders will have to pursue a range of options to shore up the gaps, including pursuing more funding from the Colorado Department of Transportation — CDOT — and the $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year.
Prioritizing funding for one project with money from the other is also "one option on the table," Sierra said.
The moratorium raises concerns from experts who say aging infrastructure threatens cities' economies and safety if it is not addressed swiftly. The South Broadway bridge, for example, was completed in 1955 — meaning it could have a "service life of about 50 years,” according to Jake Warren, Englewood's project manager.
The most recent survey of the bridge was published by CDOT — which owns the structure — in July 2021 and found the bridge was not deficient. On a scale of good, fair and bad, the agency rated the bridge's condition as fair.
A spokesperson for CDOT did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“Those ratings are far from that bridge is going to fall down tomorrow," said Steve Long, affiliate professor of engineering at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
But Long said the bridge will need to have regular maintenance due to its age. City officials have said the bridge is not a top priority for the 285 project, which is more focused on expanding roads, with Sierra adding he is "confident" about the bridge's integrity.
But failure in a bridge can be rapid, said Paul Chinowsky, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Boulder's department of civil, environmental and architectural engineering.
“There is not a lot of slow degradation," Chinowsky said, the results of which can be "catastrophic."
A recent example, Chinowsky said, occurred in Pittsburgh in January when a 50-year-old bridge collapsed just hours before President Joe Biden was set to arrive in the city to tout the $550 billion infrastructure law.
Closer to home in 2019, a retaining wall that supported U.S. Highway 36 between Denver and Boulder failed due to weakening of the clay soil underneath.
Such incidents are visceral reminders of the consequences of decades of disinvestment in the country's infrastructure, Chinowsky said.
“When we take a national look at things, we’re in bad shape," he said. “A lot of our infrastructure being built in the 60s and 70s, roads and bridges, they are at the end or past their design life … they’re beginning to break."
And with extreme weather events becoming more common due to climate change, such as floods and intense heat, outdated infrastructure is even more vulnerable to failure, Chinowsky said.
Not addressing such projects could have a direct impact on climate severity, said Long, who pointed to Englewood's proposal for the Oxford Avenue pedestrian bridge as a key way to encourage more transportation that doesn't contribute to fossil fuel emissions.
“You’ve got to start moving that today," he said. "Continue to move and create module choices for people."
Both Long and Chinowsky said Englewood's funding issues were far from unique, with inflation and supply chain disruptions sending the costs of materials and labor sky-high across the country.
“The reality is local governments cannot afford to maintain their infrastructure," Chinowsky said.
And even with the federal infrastructure law, local governments like Englewood will "be in competition" with one another for that funding, he said. But by not acting, cities also risk potentially worse financial outcomes in the cost of damages if infrastructure begins to fail.
"The economic impact is going to far outweigh the costs of repairs and replacements," Chinowsky said.
Sierra said Englewood's leaders remain committed to seeing their projects through.
“Infrastructure is the top priority for city council," he said. “Knowing that this is an issue that everyone’s going through, I’m sure there’s going to be a way to get this through."