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Boulder County Commissioners hear presentation about HWY119 makeover, and the community pushes back

More than 60 people joined the County Commissioner’s virtual meeting on April 14 regarding a proposed makeover of Highway 119, commonly known as the Diagonal Highway. After introductions, the Planning Unit of Community Planning and Permitting started their presentation about the project.

First, Planning and Permitting showed a video that gave statistics–it’s the second-most traveled highway in Boulder County, with almost 40,000 daily vehicles, and it’s the most dangerous, having more crashes than highways such as U.S. Highway 287 or even U.S. Highway 36. The video also included a description of the staff’s vision. Namely, they hope to have a nine-mile, hard surface bikeway in the median between vehicle traffic and improved intersections/bus stops.

According to Kathleen Bracke, Deputy Director of Transportation Planning, the makeover is “meant to be a comprehensive approach to link downtown Longmont, downtown Boulder and the communities beyond.”

She went on to say that the department is using a holistic approach in planning: they want to give commuters options for travel and want to focus on safety.

For example, in an attempt to improve bus commutes, the planning department hopes to implement queue bypass lanes. Essentially, transit vehicles come off the highway entirely and will then have a lane to bypass traffic at a signal. “By doing this, it helps speed up the transit time and contributes to the reliability,” said Bracke.

Plans also currently include some underpasses for pedestrians and cyclists making their way to bus stops and splitting some intersections. Bracke said that the intersection of highways 119 and 52 is one that experiences a lot of congestion and safety hazards. After splitting the intersection, it would look more like the one at Highway 119 and 63rd Street in Gunbarrel.

After the video and presentation, Boulder County Commissioner Claire Levy moderated a Q&A session based on questions sent in prior to the meeting. She also disclosed that there was a $25 million grant from the federal government to fund the project.

Two of the five questions had to do, explicitly, with bike safety and cyclists. Bracke and Alexandra Phillips, a bicycle planner with the county, answered these questions, explaining that the proposed bikeway will be designed to be as “wide and as straight as possible…built for all types of cyclists.” The bikeway will also be designed for use by electric-assist bicycles and motorized mobility (wheel chair) devices, connecting to transit stops. When asked if cyclists will still be allowed to use the shoulder, Phillips said that there aren’t any plans to close the shoulder, “But we hope everyone will want to use the bikeway.”

Another question was with regard to existing rail lines. At present, the project does not include the rail, instead focusing on developing a foundation for future rail stops and connections.

The team was also asked about commute time improvements. Bracke said that there was “quite a bit of technical analysis that’s gone into these scenarios.” She reported that transit time is important to the department, and expressed the desire to make public transit more accessible and reliable. The staff found that the aforementioned queue jumps were the most cost effective way to address the concern of commute times.

In the public comment section of the meeting, moderated by Commissioner Matt Jones, six residents were given three minutes each to give feedback. Most of the comments were critical of the project.

Aidan Sesnic of Niwot described the project as “seriously misguided,” and said it “represents everything wrong with the politics of the area.” His main argument was that driving through the diagonal corridor would always be preferable to bus travel, calling it unreliable and unnecessary. “[It] genuinely makes me embarrassed to live here….Don’t pretend this project is anything other than a waste of taxpayer money.” He went on to criticize the proposed bike path, challenging commissioners and others in county government to bike in the snow or the hot months.

Boulder resident Gary Sprung also brought up concerns about the project, arguing that anything that might encourage people to drive more has multiple negative effects–not just with regard to potential safety risks with more drivers, but also with the possibility of increasing global warming. “I think you’re doing the best you can,” said Sprung. “But is this going to induce [driving] demand?”

Notably, as per 2020 records, Boulder County had a population of 330,758 residents and reported 263,838 vehicle registrations. As previously reported in the LHVC, residents of color are generally more negatively affected by the prioritization of cars over public transportation. These community members are also those most usually negatively affected by environmental changes.

Two other people in the public forum brought up safety concerns, asking for more details about how the county plans to make the corridor (and specifically the bikeway) as accessible and safe as possible. Another resident, from unincorporated Boulder County, raised concern about the project affecting the area around Gross Dam. “I personally, and a large number of residents, oppose the paving of Magnolia Road,” he said. The last speaker, Fred Simmons of Boulder, who according to the Boulder County Assessor owns an Outlot at the Boulder Tech Center near the intersection of the Diagonal Highway and Highway 52, asked if the county was considering expansion of affordable housing.

Commissioners Marta Loachamin and Levy addressed some of these concerns. Loachamin said that the board was aware of concerns with regard to Gross Dam and were bringing on a staff member to specifically look at those impacts. She also addressed Simmons’ concern saying, “I do think there’s a connection [to affordable housing.]”

Levy said, “The concern about induced demand is always legitimate…what we’re really trying to do is make the bus a quicker way to go.”

Jones finished the meeting, once again thanking those in attendance and said that their team would get back to residents whose concerns had not yet been addressed. The project is still in its early stages and both the commissioners and Planning and Permitting Department are looking for engagement. There will be ongoing advisory panels and interested residents can get email updates by going to the project website.


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