Seeking right path for U.S. 24 

Sallie Clark obviously has a lot of issues on her plate as a county commissioner, from budget cuts to, well, more budget cuts.

But when it comes to U.S. 24, specifically plans for improving the highway from Interstate 25 west to the foothills, Clark always has time to help push that concept through the political hurdles. She might not agree with every analysis or projection, but she knows the importance of making progress whenever possible.

Even if we won't see the final reward for a while.

This week brought another hurdle: presentation of the latest U.S. 24 plans (dot.state.co.us/us24w) to the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, whose task is to prioritize and approve the region's major road projects from the earliest stages to funding and construction.

For Clark, this isn't just about serving her constituents. It's about standing up for her own west-side neighborhood's interests. When the subject is U.S. 24, she tries to make every meeting, forum or open house. For this meeting, with the PPACG moving toward its scheduled official approval of U.S. 24 plans in 2009, Clark picked out her battles in advance.

At last, that list doesn't start with the I-25/Cimarron interchange. For 35 years, local leaders identified the dire need to rebuild I-25's busiest trouble spot. Within the past year, it has moved up to a priority level that should yield real progress in the next few years. Clark says it will be similar to the I-25/Garden of the Gods Road interchange, but with upgrades such as a ramp up and over for traffic going from eastbound U.S. 24 to northbound I-25.

Meanwhile, Clark and others are equally concerned about the planned interchange at Eighth Street and U.S. 24. Because of how close it is to I-25, both interchanges should be done at the same time. And, as Clark puts it, "everyone seems to agree on the need to get Eighth Street done."

From there, though, Clark isn't so positive. At the moment, plans call for another full interchange at Highway 24 and 21st Street. But Clark wonders if new interchanges at Eighth and at I-25 will dissolve the major backups that plague that area during rush hours and busy summer weekends. That could save the major expense of an interchange at 21st.

Clark admits she's likely not to fight over 21st if that would hold up the whole project. But she'll stand her ground in defense of another issue: allowing future access to and from U.S. 24 at Ridge Road, the entry point for Red Rock Canyon.

Last year, planners had designs without entry/exit ramps connecting the highway to the canyon's main hiking entrance and surrounding neighborhood. Instead, the idea was for a U.S. 24 overpass at Ridge Road, forcing all traffic to reach the canyon via Colorado Avenue/Manitou Avenue instead.

"A lot of tax dollars went into getting that canyon for everyone," Clark says, "and it's important to make it as accessible as we can. Plus, we need emergency access, especially for any fire.

"I think the parks people would like the canyon to be more like a private park, but that's not right. Red Rock Canyon needs to be open to Highway 24."

No argument there, and Clark feels confident the final plans indeed will include the option of an interchange with entry/exit ramps, even if funding isn't certain. That segment of U.S. 24 has a lower priority, meaning it could be 20 to 25 years from reality, but the planning still is important today. If those ramps are taken off the blueprints now, they might never return.

"It's important to be reasonable. We have to find the best solutions we can, and move on," Clark says. "All I want is some assurance that we'll start with the parts of Highway 24 that need fixing the most. Like Eighth Street, there's no contention. Everyone is saying, "Yeah, let's get this done.' And even though I keep hearing the state has no money, it's amazing how if everybody wants a project to be done, the money is there."

Clark ends our talk with one last thought: "We might not all agree on everything, but we still have to pull in the same direction ... so let's get something on the table."

Otherwise, like with that I-25/Cimarron interchange, the wait might last another generation.



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