Busy at the light

Cars are either going through or stopped at the traffic light on U.S. Highway 285 at County Road 43A seemingly all the time. (Photo by Vivian Rosso/The Flume)

A town hall-style meeting was held Oct. 9 at the Platte Canyon Fire Protection District Station #2 in Bailey. The primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss the possible removal of the existing traffic light at the intersection of U.S. Highway 285 and County Road 43A.

Parties scheduled to attend included Park County Commissioners Dick Elsner and Ray Douglas, County Manager Tom Eisenman, and a representative from the Colorado Department of Transportation, who would be charged with receiving recommendations and input and answering questions from concerned citizens.

The agenda contained only two items, and at first glance seemed rather nondescript. But a standing-room-only audience that packed in well before the meeting got underway provided an early hint that interest in the topic was high, and that input was likely to be plentiful.

Elsner opened the meeting at 1:30 p.m.  with agenda item two, which proposed a formalized intergovernmental agreement for mutual aid between the Park County Sheriff’s Office and the Fairplay Police Department.

The measure, which was generally greeted with approval by all parties, was largely a ceremonial formality since the two law enforcement entities already have a cooperative working relationship.

The measure primarily granted formal permission to the Fairplay Police Department to expand their coverage beyond the town limits when Park County Sheriff or Sheriff’s deputies were not immediately present.

The second agenda item was covered first because the designated representative from CDOT was not yet present to hear dialogue regarding the traffic light at Highway 285 and CR 43A.

When Elsner opened the floor for discussion on to the first agenda item, more than a dozen hands shot up as citizens competed to have their say.

Predictably, the absence of a CDOT representative landed like a lead balloon upon the large, vocal audience that had much to say about their daily driving experiences on Highway 285, considered by studies to be the most deadly highway in the state, and among the top five most deadly highways in the entire nation.

“How are we supposed to solve problems with CDOT when they can’t even get a representative to the meeting?” one citizen asked.

“If that person is sick and couldn’t make it here, then where is that person’s boss and why couldn’t they make it here?” another citizen asked.

The meeting began at 1:30 p.m., and the citizens pointed question regarding the absence of a CDOT representative occurred about 30 minutes into the proceedings. Over two hours later, Elsner was still fielding spirited comments and questions as the clock approached 4 p.m.

During that period, Elsner sometimes had difficulty maintaining order over the emotional crowd. At other times, the finger-pointing nature of the citizens’ comments and questions prompted a distinctly confrontational tone between moderator and citizens.

Early on it became evident that the vast majority of the audience was opposed to the removal of the traffic light in question, so Elsner assured the crowd in no uncertain terms that the removal of the light would not occur any time soon.

“We are going to push for merge lanes at that location before the light is removed,” Elsner said. “I think we got the message, and this [traffic light removal] will have to wait.”

The discussion quickly turned at that point to broader issues regarding the area-wide perils of driving on Highway 285. Many local residents said they do not even attempt to travel on Highway 285 on Fridays or Sundays, as Denver-area residents consistently bring traffic to a standstill at those times en route to and from recreational outings into the mountains.

“I couldn’t care less about recreational opportunities for people in Denver when bumped up against the life of my son,” one citizen said.

Others showed frustration about similar meetings and discussions dating back almost two decades that never materialized into meaningful improvements being made to the treacherous highway.

“I was involved with multiple meetings and discussions about these same issues long ago with CDOT, and committees were formed and plans were made to make improvements that never happened,” Louis Gonzalez said.

“I have the plans that were drawn up as a result of those meetings right here. They involve all the same topics we are discussing here today. That was in 2002.”

A number of factors seem to make improvements to the highway especially difficult to plan and execute. As is the case with the traffic light at CR 43A, improvements or changes at one location simply transfer problems and bottlenecks to other nearby locations.

The highway, for example, shifts from two lanes to four lanes near Richmond Hill Road, Shaffer’s Crossing, and again in Pine Junction. Improvements in any of those areas, without making more extensive improvements along the entirety of the highway from Conifer to Bailey and beyond, are, as one citizen said, “… like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound …”

Secondly, CDOT is drastically under-funded and has similar initiatives throughout the state that cannot be immediately addressed. Even if funding issues were somehow resolved, major improvements to the highway would involve the approval of many entities because the state is broken up into zones. Park County is one of five counties that make up a particular zone, and those counties each have competing infrastructure needs.

Also, as Elsner pointed out, funding for infrastructural changes in rural areas are always a challenge to obtain.

“Funding follows population centers, so anytime I’m asking for funding, I am ultimately talking to entities in Denver,” Elsner explained.

Elsner also pointed out that two initiatives had been offered at the voting polls whereby CDOT would be funded to “… fix the whole thing …,” but both initiatives failed.

Meanwhile, a substitute representative of CDOT did eventually join the meeting. Eric M. Richardson, a local government liaison for CDOT, fielded questions upon his arrival.

When asked what criteria CDOT used to determine priorities, and where its limited resources would be utilized, Richardson said the top priority for making such decisions is data relating to accidents and safety.

When asked what he would do with information gathered at the meeting, Richardson assured the crowd that their wishes would be noted and delivered to decision-making entities within CDOT.

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