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Thursday, October 27,2011

Big changes for U.S. 36 coming down the pike

By Christie Sounart

On weekdays, U.S. 36 feels more like a parking lot than a freeway, with traffic often coming to a standstill.

But recently, major strides have been taken to improve the commuting conditions, following a vision that local mayors have had for a long time.

More than 10 years ago, Will Toor, Boulder’s mayor at the time, was one of the founding members of the U.S. 36 Mayors and Commissioners Coalition (MCC), a group of mayors from surrounding cities that met once a month to discuss how improvements could be made to the freeway. Now some of the ideas they came up with are becoming a reality.

On Sept. 1, the project landed a $54 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan from the High Performance Transportation Enterprise, a government-owned business within the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), to begin the U.S. 36 Managed Lanes/Bus Rapid Transit Project, which will cost more than $300 million.

John Schwab, the CDOT project director, says the U.S. 36 project will be constructed in two phases. The first phase will take place from Federal Boulevard to Interlocken Boulevard, and the second phase, which is not currently funded, will occur from Interlocken to Table Mesa Drive. The project will include added HOV lanes for buses and carpoolers, a tollway for single-occupancy riders, queue jumps for buses, sound walls, improved ramps and a bike lane that will run the length of the project.

“It’s going to be a total reconstruction,” says Schwab. “It’s gone fairly smooth at this point, and it is based on the mutual partnerships along the corridor.”

Another improvement to U.S. 36 will be the addition of light rail and commuter rail service that will run from Table Mesa to Denver’s Union Station. The addition of the rail lines from Boulder to Denver will be funded by the Regional Transportation District (RTD) FasTracks Program. However, more funding is needed to build the lines, says Pauletta Tonilas, FasTracks public information manager at RTD.

“CDOT, RTD and the coalition have all been collaborating for some time, brainstorming new ways to find funding,” says Tonilas. “That helps keep the project moving forward.”

Liz Viscardi, FasTracks public information liaison, explains that once the U.S. 36 Managed Lanes/Bus Rapid Transit Project is completed, the project will improve the commute to or from Boulder for every bus rider by 17 to 24 minutes. For drivers, there will be incentive to carpool, as they will be able to drive in the HOV lanes, and for single-occupancy riders, there also will be the option of paying a toll for a faster commute, she says. (The bonds issued for the CDOT loan will be repaid with toll revenues.)

Boulder Mayor Susan Osborne says that even though the second phase of the project hasn’t been funded yet, she is confident that it will be completed.

“As each increment gets built, there will be a benefit to Boulder citizens, and particularly to Boulder commuters,” she says. “There is a positive spirit about getting this project done. I think RTD, CDOT and all the communities want the project done as soon as possible.”

CDOT is expected to choose a contractor for the job in February, and construction is set to begin in the spring or early summer. The managed lanes of the first phase are expected to be completed by July 1, 2015.

Toor says the package of improvements planned for the highway has been pared down significantly in recent years. About eight years ago, he explains, the project involved the construction of an additional lane in each direction and a $2 billion price tag, in part because of pressure from then-Gov. Bill Owens to widen highways.

“It was unfundable,” Toor says of the previous plan, adding that the new approach of combining transit with HOV and bike lanes is smarter, not to mention much less expensive. And, he says, a variety of funding sources have been leveraged to make it happen.

“It’s great to see things moving forward,” Toor says. “When I first started working on this, my son was in preschool, and now he’s getting close to starting high school. I’m really happy to see it coming to fruition.”


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