The Northwest Parkway: Beyond Mitigation

by Laura McCall

In 1988, voters by a stunning three-to-one margin rejected funding for W-470. Since then, a coalition of developers, the Arvada City Council, and the Northwest Chamber of Commerce have been breathing new life into the highway and have renamed it the Northwest Parkway. The North Jeffco Plains Plan predicts that, if this expressway is built, Highway 93 will carry 81,000 automobiles per day. Alexandria Vitaliano, who served on the Denver Regional Council of Governments Metro Vision 2020 Task Force, learned that within seven to nine years, new urban highways are unsafely congested and thus the taxpayer dollars spent to construct them are counterproductive. The Sustainable Transportation Coalition reports that "this so-called improved roadway will most likely beat out even Wadsworth in Arvada for congestion, delays, and air pollution."

There is more at stake than the construction of the Northwest Parkway. What makes this road particularly troubling is that, if completed, it will finish a beltway around the Denver metropolitan region. Studies have determined the impact of beltways and, on several points, the statisticians concur--beltways contribute to traffic congestion and sprawl. They represent fiscal and environmental irresponsibility. they engulf open space and make it very difficult to plan public transportation corridors. They cost the taxpayers money because of the need for expanded services.

In the January 14, 1999, edition of the Denver Post, Broomfield Mayor Bill Berens was reported as saying: "All the great cities have a complete beltway." With all due respect, Mr. Berens needs to take a lesson from the pages of history and bone up on his knowledge about the devastating impacts wrought by beltways. Do the citizens of Denver wish to resemble the beltway cities of Washington, D.C. or Dallas-Ft. Worth? Are these indeed great cities? Do Paris, Rome, London, San Francisco, or New Orleans (arguably the greatest cities in the world) have beltways? What they have are green belts--swatches of open space.

Kansas City and St. Louis have experienced what planners call the "donut impact." The city center becomes blighted, strip developments arise along the beltway, and residential and retail sprawl mushrooms beyond. Dallas-Ft. Worth, where a twenty mile commute takes ninety minutes, is ringed by two beltways. Beltways are an archaic step backward.

Those who voted for the Save Open Space initiative as well as the citizens who fought to preserve South Table Mountain from the Nike Corporation development should take note. History is resplendent with proof that new highway construction is the golden carrot to new development and that land adjacent to the new highways becomes ripe for development, Just look at what is happening in South Jefferson County along highway C-470.

As soon as the route has been selected and funding is in place, the price of land nearby escalates. Because growth does not pay its own way, each single-family dwelling costs cities and counties anywhere between $12,000 to $30,000 because of the increased demand for schools, police and fire protection, auxiliary roads, snow plowing, street maintenance, and parks (the ironic replacement to the open spaces the subdivisions have destroyed). The people who move into these houses demand services nearby and thus the big box retail stores and junk-food restaurants spring up. The average household generates at least ten vehicle trips per day and, suddenly, that new road which once existed in the middle of nowhere is lined with houses and commercial development and clogged with automobiles.


Mitigation: A planning and design firm based in Dallas, Texas--Wallace, Roberts, & Todd--was hired by the City of Golden to develop mitigation concepts for a potential superhighway bisecting Golden. They designed ten mitigations for noise and air pollution and have narrowed them down to three. At a February 4, 1999, City Council study study session, Mr. Donal Simpson of Wallace, Roberts, & Todd concluded that, without mitigation, the economic impacts will be negative and will include noise, visual degradation, the separation of western neighborhoods from the town center, business disruption and declining property values. The consultants could not find any positive impacts for Golden, adding that nobody could build a wall high enough to block the noise from the thundering vehicles roaring through our town.

Option One, the "cut and cover" approach, would bury the highway from north Golden to 19th Street. Essentially, it would require digging a twenty-five to thirty-five foot deep hole where they would build the road and then covering it. The costs would be immense, and the only way we might beat the economic losses would be to trade off the decline in existing tax revenues with new economic development. Covering the roadway would double or even triple the cost of road construction and only protect half of Golden from noise impacts because the "lid" ends at 19th Street. (Denver Post 14 January 1999 and Wallace, Roberts, & Todd, respectively.)

Option Two would tunnel either beneath the houses in Canyon Point or to the west of them. The highway would come out at the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon, tunnel back through Lookout Mountain west of Beverly Heights, and come out just south of the Colorado School of Mines survey fields. As with Option One, only half of Golden is protected from the impacts. Hazardous cargo would not be allowed through the tunnel under most conditions, so where would the trucks carrying hazardous materials be diverted? When accidents occur in the tunnel, cars will pour onto the streets of Golden. Mitigation does not solve the fundamental problems of beltways and their impacts.

Option Three, the "go away from Golden option," would tunnel through North Table Mountain, widen Highway 58 to join Interstate 70 where drivers could hook up with C-470. The road would be three miles shorter, which could reduce construction costs as much as $60,000,000.

Citizens and the newspapers have suggested additional alternate routes including McIntyre or Indiana Streets as well as Ward Road. All the alternatives would shorten the road which will reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMTs), road-maintenance costs, and land-acquisition costs. The severe wind and weather of Highway 93 would no longer be a factor. These alternate routes will, however, impact already existing neighborhoods, and alternate routes do not solve the fundamental problems wrought by beltways.


Just say no. Developers and their minions will use scare tactics, arguing that growth is inevitable and necessary for our economic health and well-being. "If you don't grow you die" is the mantra of the developers. One could, on the other hand, argue that growth is a cancer that eats away at governmental coffers, open spaces, and the human spirit.

Covering the entire highway from north Golden to where Highway 6 meets Highway 40 (Colfax Avenue) does not solve the fundamental problem of beltways, which add congestion through additional driving and consume open space. The "lid" will not take away from the issues of accidents in the tunnel or hazardous cargo, both of which will pour onto Golden's local streets. Beltways promise short-term benefits for a few but long-term problems for the majority.

The City of Golden has taken the official stance that we must be reasonable and seek compromised solutions to this catastrophe that will change the character of our town. Remember, the word "compromise" does not only mean a settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions. It also means to surrender one's interests, principles, or integrity. Throughout history, there have been times when compromise was absolutely not acceptable.

Eighty percent of everything built in the United States has been constructed in the last fifty years, and most of it is ugly, spiritually degrading, wasteful, and oftentimes toxic. Roads fuel this growth. Just say no way to the parkway; no way to the beltway.

(Laura McCall, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Metropolitan State College of Denver.)

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