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City to study Santa Fe traffic fixes

Littleton and nearby cities will look at possible upgrades to highway

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Traffic congestion and Santa Fe Drive go together like jam and bread, and Littleton city officials are embarking on an effort to address the problem.

Littleton officials and their counterparts in Englewood and Sheridan met recently with representatives of the Colorado Department of Transportation, which manages the state highway. They discussed establishing a Planning and Environmental Linkages study to evaluate the Santa Fe corridor between I-25 on the north and C-470 on the south.

The study would be a comprehensive survey of traffic data, environmental and engineering components, and citizen input to develop a plan to improve traffic flows on the highway.

The PEL is a necessary first step toward future efforts to widen Santa Fe, said Littleton City Manager Mark Relph.

“Once you complete this, you've cleared the first hurdle in making improvements in this corridor,” Relph said. “If you don't do the PEL, you won't get funds.”

Funding future projects on Santa Fe will require a multi-jurisdictional effort because of the tremendous cost, at-large Councilmember Doug Clark said.

“Price estimates we've seen in the past for our desired improvements were up in the $90 million range,” Clark said. “That's basically our entire road fund for 45 to 70 years. There are different pots of money we can get — federal, state — but to get on those lists, we need to agree on what we want to do.”

There's more to the cost than just construction, said Keith Reester, Littleton's acting public works director.

“The idea of building your way out of congestion is a very difficult and expensive proposition,” Reester said. “When you start talking about adding capacity to your system, the cost really comes in real estate, because you need more right of way to do more turn lanes and so forth.”

The city has budgeted $200,000 this year toward establishing community engagement and inter-agency partnerships, Reester said.

“We don't want to make any assumptions on what the end game is going to look like,” city engineer Brent Thompson said. “That's what the study is all about — identifying different opportunities and strategies for corridor management. It may be adding lanes, it may be grade separation, it may be lots of things.

The intersection of Santa Fe Drive and Mineral Avenue looms large on city officials' radar. Data published on the city's website showed that just shy of 55,000 cars a day traveled the stretch from Mineral to Bowles on Santa Fe in 2015, up 7 percent from 2011. The numbers for last year and this year were not available.

Relph said that while he didn't have hard numbers, he would give the intersection an F grade on the level of service measurements set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“We know something has to change there,” Relph said. “There's more development coming in that area, so we want to manage the growth as best we can.”

Fixing the intersection is tricky because of the proximity of the light rail and freight rail lines crossing Mineral, Reester said.

“They're not the easiest partners to work with,” Reester said.

The PEL could take upward of a couple years, said District IV Councilmember Debbie Brinkman, with construction taking even longer.

“This probably won't all come to fruition for seven to 10 years,” Brinkman said, “but if you don't get started, it's not going to happen.”

In the meantime, other efforts can help ease the burden, Reester said, such as linking all the traffic lights on Santa Fe with fiber optics, which would allow for real-time adjustments to traffic light timing to respond to varying traffic loads. Presently, all the traffic lights on Santa Fe operate independently. Reester said the fiber-optic plan will be part of this year's budget discussions.

Also important, Reester said, is developing a multimodal plan that evaluates the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians and public transit users.

“We need an intelligent transportation system,” Reester said, “although some people would call that an oxymoron.”

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