Safety, not speed, priority for road construction with less traffic

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COLORADO SPRINGS – The stay-at-home order is no more evident than during rush hour traffic time. In the morning, when the downtown I-25 corridor is typically packed, moves right along.

Traffic is down up to 60 percent on some of the state’s highways. On the entire stretch of I-25, 38 percent less drivers took the north-south highway from March 11-April 1 than in the same time in 2019.

This has allowed the Colorado Department of Transportation to move projects that were to take place at night, to the day time.

“Daytime is a much safer time for our crews,” CDOT Communication Manager Michelle Peulen said. “It can be more efficient during the daytime.

Peulen is the communications director for the southeast office of CDOT. She said the I-25 Gap Project will periodically have single-lane closures over the next several weeks because the drop in traffic is allowing the agency to do that work with less of an impact on commuters.

Construction, including that on roads has been deemed an essential business under the stay-at-home order.

“Maintaining our current roadways is essential,” Peulen said. “Why? Because we got to ensure that the supply chain keeps moving, that those products we all want to see, that the freight companies are bringing, are on the shelves.”

CDOT has instructed its contractors to maintain social distancing on-site and use non-medical grade masks and gloves for workers, with the goal of protecting them while saving the higher-grade masks for the health care workers that need them.

Peulen said it’s too soon to know if projects like the Gap will finish sooner because of the traffic closures, but that data should be available in the next few weeks.

“I look at safety as a higher benefit than a little bit of time savings but, I think certainly they’re both benefits,” Colorado Springs Public Works Director Travis Easton said.

Easton added on projects where traffic allows, additional lanes may close to give crews more space to work. The work may get done quicker, he says, but they aren’t moving projects around because of less traffic.

“No significant change to our scheduling or anything like that,” Easton said. “We’re moving forward as originally planned and just trying to get it all done for the citizens in a way that is safe.”

The work site may be safe but the money funding future projects are not. Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers is asking departments to find a total of $20 million to cut from the General Fund. Budget forecasts from the State of Colorado show budget shortfalls to come in the next few fiscal years (starting in July and following the 2019-2020 fiscal year) which means less money the Colorado Legislature can allocate, including to CDOT.

The statewide transportation industry is also funded by the gas tax, but with driving cut almost squarely in half, that revenue is almost sure to fall as well.

“Were definitely going to have to look at the budget and see what choices are going to have to be made,” Peulen said. “I’m sure there are going to be some very tough choices for the agency moving forward.”

Easton says, because this years tax money will apply to next year’s Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority budget, most of the projects in the short term should continue on as planned. It’s 2021-22 where incomes will be more uncertain.

Already, however, Easton estimates 2C tax money to the city could drop by $7 million. The voter-approved dedicated road resurfacing fund draws its money directly from sales tax. With many service industry and retailer doors closed in the pandemic, it’s expected revenue will drop there as well.

“Unfortunately, if we have a $7 million dollar shortfall or whatever it ends up being, obviously there won’t be as many additional roads that we’ll be able to get finished,” Easton said. “But, I think we’re not going to have any problem getting the roads done that we promised the citizens.”

Easton said the department’s work continues year-round, but temperatures are becoming more favorable for repaving roads in the coming weeks.

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