Republicans urge Hickenlooper to ask feds to speed up highway projects

Author: Ernest Luning - January 26, 2017 - Updated: January 27, 2017

Traffic backs up on Interstate 25 approaching Castle Rock along a stretch of highway known as "The Gap," which is a top construction priority for the state. (Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)
Traffic backs up on Interstate 25 approaching Castle Rock along a stretch of highway known as “The Gap,” which is a top construction priority for the state. (Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)

A group of Republican legislators from El Paso County want Gov. John Hickenlooper to petition the federal government to hasten the approval process for transportation projects after President Donald Trump issued an executive order encouraging it.

Noting that the governor declared “When it comes to transportation infrastructure projects, time is money” in his State of the State address earlier this month, the lawmakers suggested in a letter to Hickenlooper on Wednesday that the state jump at the chance to get a faster turnaround from the feds.

“President Trump’s swift action to provide regulatory relief gives Colorado exactly the opportunity we need to expedite some critical transportation projects in this state,” wrote state Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. He was joined by Colorado Springs Republican state Reps. Dan Nordberg, Terri Carver, Lois Landgraf, Dave Williams and Larry Liston signing the letter.

“I, along with the rest of the Colorado Springs Republican delegation,” Lundeen wrote, “am urging Gov. Hickenlooper to seize this opportunity without delay and get the ball rolling on Colorado’s most pressing transportation projects as quickly as possible.”

The governor, a Democrat, sounded open to the possibility.

“We are always looking for options to responsibly accelerate projects to construction, and are examining the new federal directives and potential options,” Hickenlooper spokeswoman Holly Shrewsbury told The Colorado Statesman in an email.

On Tuesday, Trump signed a directive aimed at accelerating environmental reviews and permitting for what the White House terms “high priority infrastructure projects.”

“Delays and other inefficiencies in the environmental review and permitting process are severely impeding critically important projects to rebuild and modernize our nation’s infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, tunnels, the electrical grid, ports, water systems, airports, railways and pipelines,” the White House said in commentary accompanying the executive order.

According to the order, a governor can request the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to decide whether a project qualifies as “high priority” and then nudge it along.

Lundeen told The Statesman he had in mind in particular the Interstate 25 widening project between Monument and Castle Rock, which has been called a top priority by pretty much everyone who’s taken a look.

Earlier in January, the Colorado Department of Transportation said it would speed up the environmental and planning process involved with adding a third lane in each direction along the notorious 19-mile stretch with an eye toward having the project ready to break ground by the summer of 2019. According to estimates, once construction starts it will take two and a half years to finish improvements along that length of highway. (The entire project envisioned by CDOT also includes work north of Castle Rock to Lone Tree.)

“As congestion continues to build along I-25, CDOT has decided that this project can’t wait,” said CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt in a statement announcing the move. “We’re going to do our part and get ready for construction in two years. Now we need others to help us come up with the $300 to $400 million we need to build it.”

The stretch of highway was one of two Colorado projects included in a nationwide priority list of infrastructure improvements put together by the Trump transition team obtained by the Kansas City Star and The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington. (The other Colorado project appeared to be one that’s already been completed, the addition of an express lane on Interstate 70 west of Denver.)

CORRECTION: CDOT anticipates it will take two and a half years to finish improvements on “The Gap” once construction starts, not five years, as this story originally said. The entire planning and construction process is slated to take five years, absent any expedited action by the federal government.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.