Construction speeds up on I-70 and I-25, but other Colorado projects may be doomed

Big highway projects along the Front Range have taken advantage of the unprecedented weeks-long lull in traffic set off by the coronavirus pandemic by speeding up some work.

But the pandemic’s escalating economic fallout threatens to keep other major road projects across Colorado — including the bulk of a $1.6 billion list approved just five months ago — from even getting started. In the near term, the Colorado Department of Transportation said, uncertainty about state borrowing plans will pause dozens of projects that haven’t been advertised for bid yet. CDOT also might pull the plug on several more that are finishing the bid process.

Yet the dramatic decrease in traffic that has resulted from stay-at-home orders has been a boon for managers of the Central 70 project in northeast Denver and the I-25 South Gap project, among others.

CDOT has relaxed normal restrictions on daytime work that were intended to reduce the impact on commuters.

For the last few weeks, the $1.2 billion I-70 project has closed more ramps in the western part of the 10-mile work zone and shifted cross-traffic into a tighter configuration on Colorado Boulevard in the center zone. In the eastern part of the project, set in coming weeks to be the first segment finished, crews have closed lanes during daytime hours, allowing for paving originally planned for overnight hours.

“That work was supposed to be scheduled for later in the spring and early summer because you’d have to wait for warmer temperatures at night,” Central 70 project spokesperson Stacia Sellers said.

Looking ahead, the pandemic’s negative fallout for future highway projects is only coming into view.

When the Colorado Transportation Commission approved CDOT’s $1.6 billion project list in November, it stood as the most substantial funded road plan in years. CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew detailed the potential carnage during the commission’s video conference meeting Thursday.

Suddenly at risk are big-ticket projects on Interstate 70 in the mountains, including a notorious bottleneck at Floyd Hill, as well as widening work along sections of Interstate 25 along the Front Range and an overhaul of Interstate 270 in metro Denver.

But multiyear projects that depend on more funding to continue, including the I-25 North project near Fort Collins, still are likely to proceed on schedule, CDOT said.

Lew said the state treasurer’s office, facing new market uncertainty, has delayed the latest $500 million batch of transportation borrowing that had been planned for March — money that’s needed for dozens of projects this summer. Officials now hope to see that money by late June.

Lew laid out $250 million in projected hits to CDOT’s budget through 2023 because of the downturn, including a drop in gas tax revenue. The revenue reductions could imperil even more projects as CDOT struggles to keep up with required road maintenance, she said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers tasked with balancing competing needs across state government as it faces a dour budget outlook could put off the large remaining transportation borrowing commitments they’ve made in recent years.

Speaking to the commission, Lew called the pandemic’s multiyear fallout for road projects “a scenario that … we don’t want to be in and where there’s really nothing we can do that’s just a great outcome.”

The only potential bright spot, she said, would be if the federal government decided to pay for a massive transportation stimulus package. By Lew’s estimate, CDOT has roughly $2.5 billion in projects that are “shovel ready,” or nearly so, and would be ready to capitalize on such a program.

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