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 November 5, 1999

Environmental study: Is enough being done?

BOULDER – What kind of environmental studies are necessary to build the Northwest Parkway?

It’s a question still being hotly debated. And the final answer will be a pivotal factor in how quickly the first shovel of dirt is turned for the proposed 10-mile toll road.

Several vocal groups say no one really has examined the cumulative impacts of the larger beltway being constructed piecemeal around metro Denver. They also say there is enough federal involvement in the private Northwest Parkway project to require a more in-depth environmental study than what the Northwest Parkway Public Highway Authority presently plans.

Steve Hogan, director of the authority, disagrees.

He says more than enough will be done – in fact more than required by law for similar projects anywhere else in the country. The Environmental Assessment (EA) required at interchanges with public highways is “very comprehensive,” he explains. For the Northwest Parkway, at least three miles of its 10-mile length is covered by the same studies that would be required by the greater Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). They just have different names, he says.

“In addition, we are doing other environmental studies on the whole length of the project,” Hogan says. “Of those additional studies, most are part of an EIS. So even though we’re not required to do an EIS, we’re doing some of the studies anyhow, but not because we have to, because we want to and we need to.

“We are doing studies on threatened and endangered species. We are doing studies on historical sites. We are doing studies on noise. We are doing studies on impacts to existing development. And that’s all because we think it’s the right thing to do, not because it is required under federal law.”

Hogan says if an EIS were required, it would add a year to a year and a half to the process of building the parkway and – although difficult to estimate cost – that it probably would mean an additional cost approaching $1 million.

Boulder Mayor Will Toor is one high-profile politician in the camp of those who believe not enough is being done.

Toor has written to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on behalf of the city of Boulder – he had the backing of city council with the exception of council members Tom Eldridge and Bob Greenlee – to ask that it continue to object to “the lack of environmental analysis anticipated for the proposed beltway through metro Denver.”

Golden also supports Boulder’s request.

“It’s very similar to the request we made,” says Golden City Manager, referring to a letter on behalf of the city written to the Army Corps. of Engineers.

Boulder has argued for a full environmental assessment of the project since it passed a resolution in 1996 stating “there must be an exhaustive investigation of all transportation investment options in the proposed corridor through an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment that entails an analysis of full costs and benefits and associated environmental impacts.”

Toor himself says there will be “pervasive” federal involvement with the proposed E-470 and the Northwest Parkway, triggering an EIS instead of the EA. Boulder and Golden officials say they are concerned with the cumulative impacts of the larger beltway, especially in areas such as wetlands.

Cynthia Cody, manager of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), says the Army Corps of Engineers has the option — based on the extent of impacts — to issue a permit that is excluded from NEPA or one that requires a broader environmental impact statement such as the EIS.

What triggers an EIS is either federal money or federal permits. Federal permits are required for intersections with public highways. But a private toll road, even one that includes such intersections, is not likely to be forced into an EIS.

“There’s not a federal requirement for it,” Cody says.

Kelly Wark, transportation director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), says her group also is calling for a full environmental study of the beltway. “We’ve never seen that kind of environmental analysis of the beltway and yet we know that this is going to have tremendous impacts on the metro region,” Wark says.

With the EA, she notes, studies are looking at the beltway intersection by intersection with no analysis of what the full beltway will do to the region.

“Clearly we are not just building interchanges, we’re building a beltway that will circle the metro region,” she says.

While CoPIRG is most concerned with the growth associated with beltways, Hogan notes that Denver is one of the last metropolitan areas without a beltway.

“Many metropolitan areas have several beltways,” he says. “They are there to facilitate transportation, not to promote growth. People need to get easily from suburb to suburb and that is just not possible in Denver. The so-called ring road, the beltway, that’s the only way that it becomes easy to get from suburb to suburb. … The people who say we shouldn’t have beltways only seem to want to make life more difficult for those who drive.”

Hogan lived through the controversy of the E-470 portion of the beltway and says there are always controversies with new projects. The Northwest Parkway, he notes, will be buffered by more than $10 million of open space. He admits that more wrenches, however, still could be thrown in to the construction schedule. One of the last pieces for approval, for example, comes from the Denver Regional Council of Governments in its air quality analysis.

Congressman Mark Udall says his position is “to continue to encourage everybody to keep talking to each other.”

Udall says he hears a lot about managing growth and reducing sprawl from his constituents and that he thinks “it is a very legitimate concern.” He notes that the smaller piece of the beltway called the Northwest Parkway has limited access and a more natural environment surrounding the roadway.

Still, he says, it may make sense for the parkway proponents and the authority to do an EIS “to cover all their bases.”

“It would make good sense for the environment, it might make good sense for planning purposes and might actually avoid lawsuits and costly delays,” Udall says.

He says wetlands are more ubiquitous than you might think.

“An EIS might be a good insurance policy,” he says.

BOULDER – What kind of environmental studies are necessary to build the Northwest Parkway?

It’s a question still being hotly debated. And the final answer will be a pivotal factor in how quickly the first shovel of dirt is turned for the proposed 10-mile toll road.

Several vocal groups say no one really has examined the cumulative impacts of the larger beltway being constructed piecemeal around metro Denver. They also say there is enough federal involvement in the private Northwest Parkway project to require a more in-depth environmental study than what the Northwest Parkway Public Highway Authority presently plans.

Steve Hogan, director of…

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