Denver International Airport at sunrise, Denver Colorado, USA,

Denver International Airport at sunrise.

A $93.4 million widening project for the Denver International Airport thoroughfare Peña Boulevard will move forward after receiving approval from city officials Monday.

A vote on the project was delayed by one week, to allow newly-elected Denver City Council members the opportunity to weigh in on the proposal. On Monday night one new member voted nay and another abstained, with their objections centering on climate change. Still, the proposal easily passed, with 11 votes in favor.

A 3.5-mile stretch of Peña Boulevard, between Jackson Gap and the airport terminal, will be the focus of the upgrades aimed at improving traffic flow through the area. The project would see the boulevard's inbound lanes increase from three to five and outbound lanes from three to four.

The city will award a contract to Interstate Highway Construction of Centennial for design and construction of the renovations.

The project is the first of four phases of improvements over the next decade slated for the 17.2-mile Peña Boulevard.

With the threat of climate change looming, new Councilman Chris Hinds said the city needs to take bold steps and a widening project on Peña Boulevard is counterproductive in that regard. Hinds abstained from Monday’s night vote.

“I believe it’s our job in government to shape Denver’s future,” Hinds said. “In this situation, we have an opportunity to shape the future of a region, not just the city and county of Denver.”

“Increasing lanes and allowing more single-occupant vehicles, I don’t believe is the right answer for us as we shape the future,” Hinds said.

Hinds added with estimates predicting another 200,000 people living in Denver by 2040, the city shouldn’t be focused on widening roads, but targeted on its goal of getting more Denverites out of their cars and using public transit.

“I’m a little concerned about feeding the traffic monster and adding more lanes,” Hinds said.

In retort, Councilman Kevin Flynn said as a journalist who wrote about the development of the light rail to DIA, a former Regional Transit District (RTD) project manager and someone who, after the light rail to DIA opened, has only used the A-line in transit to the airport, he recognizes it can’t be the only option. The A-line isn’t a sustainable option to haul all the traffic in and out of the airport, Flynn said.

“We have to keep up maintenance and expansion of the roadway,” Flynn said. “... The roadway also carries buses, shuttles, hotel shuttles and mountain shuttles, so there is a lot of multi-modal travel that has to use Peña Boulevard.”

Flynn added that much of the concrete on Peña Boulevard is turning 30 years old, and one of the new lanes that would be added through the project would be dedicated to multi-modal traffic.

If Denver’s light rail isn’t enough to transport daily airport traffic, then the conversation should be about expanding light rail to DIA, and not expanding Peña Boulevard, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said. The councilwoman cast the lone no vote on the project. 

“We know our planet is on fire, we know the risk of induced demand,” CdeBaca, who took her seat on the council for the first time Monday, said of widening Peña Boulevard.

“Yes, we should continue to maintain our roads, the ones that currently exist, but we have to curb our use of single-occupant vehicles, and this is not the way to do that, especially to the airport," CdeBaca said.

Arguing in favor of the proposal, Councilman Paul Kashmann stated that Peña Boulevard was initially built to handle a smaller volume of traffic than what DIA is currently generating and anticipated to attract in the coming years.

When the airport first opened more than two decades ago, it was designed to accommodate 50 million passengers a year. But DIA passenger traffic has perpetually swelled, exceeding airport capacity.

The same is true of Peña Boulevard. Michelle Martin, the airport’s director of infrastructure, has said the current capacity of the road was created for 50 million vehicles per year but already is handling 64.5 million annually.

The work on the project is expected to start early 2020 and wrap up by spring 2022.

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