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Gotta Go

December 8, 2016

The saga of the Jefferson Parkway around Denver is so emblematic that we all ought to read and remember how we got this way. Let’s start in 2009, with this Westword article, and then migrate to 2012, in Golden, Colorado.

Breathes there a soul who really, truly, loves a beltway? Maybe, but you are not likely to find one here in this little city in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Denver. For decades, this has been the community that said no, arguing through courts and politics and whatever other means available that a multi-lane ring road circling Denver—the kind built around cities all across America starting in the 1950s and ’60s—would spell disaster.

Most of Denver’s belt-loop would cruise through open prairie land; here it would cleave the narrow Golden Valley and shatter the community and its residents, and their leaders said so in what became a mantra.

Transportation and planning experts say there probably is no clear answer as to whether beltways have been good or bad. If, in some places, they might have led to urban sprawl, they say that, by opening up undeveloped land and decentralizing downtowns, there are also examples where a belt, by diverting traffic to the edges, kept a thoroughfare from passing straight through a city’s center and ripping it apart. Memphis, for example, embraced the ring road as a way of avoiding an interstate through downtown. Portland, Maine, residents, by contrast, opposed a proposed interstate extension in the 1970s, and the plan was scrapped in favor of public transit. Robert Moses’s dream of a superhighway loop across lower Manhattan went the way of auto tailfins and leaded gas. South Pasadena’s opposition to the 710 freeway in Southern California created a break in the highway that persists to this day.

Denver, by dragging out the beltway fight for decades (the vision was put down in regional plans in the late 1950s) created a kind of third alternative: a belt constructed in stages amid a slow-motion fight that never ended. Just this month, the city of Golden filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Fish and Wildlife Service of improperly allowing federal land for a proposed new section of belt north of the city. “Denver, as a result of doing it piecemeal, may not have had the curse of pushing people out into the exurbs,” said Representative Max Tyler, a Democrat who represents Golden in the state legislature. Some prominent urban planning experts are not so sure about that. Because Denver’s partial belt was built over time, with many assuming that the project would one day be finished, business owners and residents made decisions accordingly.

Said one: “It is an incorrect argument that if you can hold out against that last segment and not complete the ring it will be a bulwark against sprawl, because the sprawl already exists. From a regional planning and transportation perspective it makes more sense to have a full beltway than three-fourths of a beltway.”

Historians say the belt idea itself was essentially a kind of arranged marriage between urban America and the interstate highway system, which began paving its way across the nation late in the Eisenhower administration. The question, which had never before arisen in a country of local and often unpaved roads, was what should happen when the interstate encountered a city. Through the decades since, of richer and poorer and bumper-to-bumper, the answer—a circle—shaped what scores of cities became.

If the extension north of town, called the Jefferson Parkway, is built and the belt thus closes in on both edges—a section already exists just to the south—then local streets, the critics say, could be overwhelmed by drivers creating a de facto belt by driving through Golden to get to the section of belt on the other side.

Golden city officials said that projected traffic numbers on the parkway extension have been inflated to make the project appear more financially viable. “According to our studies, it would not make that much difference to traffic,” said Golden’s mayor, Marjorie Sloan. Bill Ray, a senior policy adviser to the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, said the future would change with or without Golden’s consent. A growing population, he said, would bring congestion to the little Golden Valley, and the only question was how the resulting traffic would be managed.

The issue was finally resolved by a court in 2015, allowing the development.

We learned nothing from the 70s.

As insidious as the pervasiveness of autos- and our dependency on them is, little mentioned is the gutting that beltways, parkways, ring-roads take on small and mid sized cities they reject. Portland, Maine, for example, is the beneficiary of a partial beltway, one that provides easy access to the Maine Mall, big box stores and a way out of town.

The result: No effective consumer retail within the town. Need a new school outfit for your kid? Off you go to the burbs. That middle distance commute presents the biggest problem for me when I contemplate going carless. I can car share around town, wait for better public transport, (though I will be long gone before it arrives). I can rent a car for a long haul or a truck for a load of loam, but what of the 10-mile, two-hour forced shopping venture? Will on-demand cars really figure out an algorithm that can compute the cost effectiveness of such a trip. I wonder? Maybe you have a thought.