Government & Politics  November 9, 2022

Estes Park board to mull future of Loop project

ESTES PARK — Still reeling from the soaring cost estimates for completion of Estes Park’s traffic-diffusion project known as the Downtown Loop, the town’s Board of Trustees has scheduled a special meeting for Nov. 17 to discuss the fate of the still-controversial plan.

The Loop, which would turn downtown streets into a one-way couplet to speed traffic to and from Rocky Mountain National Park, was conceived nine years ago and approved in 2016 by the town board after a contentious debate that divided area residents and business owners. Opposition to the project became largely muted after the town board’s vote, but has flared up again since Public Works Director Greg Muhonen revealed last month that the lowest of two  bids to build the Loop came in more than $11 million over budget.

Since the cost overrun was made public, Muhonen told town trustees at a Tuesday night study session, “I’ve been personally contacted by 15 parties in opposition to the project and three in favor.”

After a project-design engineering consultant estimated in July that the Loop would cost nearly $15.8 million to bid, Muhonen advertised for bids in September and received two from general contractors. The lowest proposal, from Broomfield-based Flatiron Constructors, came in at slightly more than $27 million, far exceeding the consultant’s estimate. The other bid was for more than $33.5 million from Littleton-based American Civil Constructors.

Since then, Muhonen said, he has been brainstorming possible solutions with representatives of the town, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Central Federal Lands Highway Division, part of the Federal Highway Administration. On Tuesday night, Muhonen and Neil Ogden from Central Federal Lands offered the trustees three options.

The first option is to terminate work on the Loop, and shelve the project, discarding nine years of work and eliminating the infrastructure benefits previously requested by the community when it applied in 2013 for a Federal Lands Access Project grant. The FLAP money would be spent in other communities, and the cost to improve Estes Park’s downtown infrastructure would fall on the town and CDOT, which already has secured the right-of-way.

“What would those property owners think of that,” Muhonen asked, “if we acquired their property for a specific purpose that we didn’t pursue?”

The second option would be to re-advertise the project in six to 12 months, hoping the uncertainty in the construction industry might stabilize and trigger lower prices and improved predictability in material and labor availability. Ogden and Muhonen pointed out that forecasting future economic conditions is difficult and the town would run the risk of prices increasing even more. That option, Muhonen said, would also delay the planned January start of construction and delay other upgrades.

The third option, which Muhonen recommended, was that the project could be built as designed and bid. He said CFLHD is willing to continue funding 82.79% of the project cost through the FLAP program, contingent upon a 17.21% contribution from the local agency partners. That would mean that FLAP would kick in an additional $9.3 million — making its total contribution $34.71 million — but the town and CDOT would have to add an additional $1 million each.

“Do we want to invest a total of $1.51 million of local sales-tax funds in order to direct $40 million of federal and state funds to address the infrastructure needs we have in Estes Park right now and benefit ingress and egress to the national park,” he asked. “I think this is a sound investment to do this for the town. I don’t see another pathway for the town to get grant funding for some of the infrastructure needs we have in the downtown core if we let this opportunity go by.”

One of the complaints that Muhonen said he heard was about the disruption such a construction project would cause in Estes Park’s downtown core.

“I’m aware of the pain of 24 months of construction,” he said, but added that similar complaints were heard about the Riverwalk project, an urban-renewal plan developed after the 1982 Lawn Lake Flood, and “look at the benefits that project has done for the town. In spite of the disruption and short-term pain, I think the benefit will be similarly beneficial.”

After Trustee Marie Cenac expressed fears of more Loop costs down the road and Trustee Cindy Younglund said she expected costs of a proposed roundabout at U.S. Highway 36 and Community Drive near the fairgrounds to come in over budget as well, Mayor Wendy Koenig suggested holding a Nov. 17 special meeting of the Board of Trustees to weigh the options — including the possibility of scheduling a special election for town residents to decide at the ballot box whether the Loop project should continue.

Muhonen said making a prompt decision would be wise because the existing bids could expire, but Town Administrator Travis Machalek expressed skepticism about holding an election because “we would not be able to hold a vote and keep with the timetable.”

The project was conceived as part of a plan to provide faster access for visitors to and from Rocky Mountain National Park. Under the plan for the 0.9-mile downtown Loop, westbound U.S. Highway 36 traffic, toward the park, will use its currently designated route — west along Elkhorn Avenue through the downtown core of tourist shops and restaurants, then south and west on Moraine Avenue — but eastbound U.S. 36 will be diverted at the Moraine Avenue curve through a new roundabout onto one-way northbound West Riverside Drive, across a new bridge over the Big Thompson River at Ivy Street, then north on East Riverside Drive to reconnect with Elkhorn on downtown’s eastern edge. Moraine Avenue would be one-way southbound from Elkhorn to Riverside.

Loop proponents have pointed to the opportunity to snare FLAP funding to mitigate the ever-increasing summer traffic headaches as tourists head for a national park that has become the nation’s third-most-visited, drawing more than 4.6 million visitors in 2019 and prompting the establishment of a timed-entry program to reduce the crowding. The project also would include building flood-resilient infrastructure at two bridges along Riverside and widening and deepening the Big Thompson River’s channel. That work would alter the designated floodplain, decreasing flood-insurance premiums for more than 20 properties.

Opponents countered that the plan would disturb the peace of homes, rental cottages and two city parks along Riverside, as well as hurting businesses along East Elkhorn, the main downtown commercial street, by speeding tourists leaving the park out of town and away from its economic generators. To get back to the downtown core, they argued, eastbound tourists leaving the park would have to circle back around — and town residents also would have to deal with the inconvenience of the counterclockwise pattern during the offseason when the summer congestion the Loop was meant to alleviate doesn’t exist.

This project originated through the Town’s 2013 application for FLAP funds to explore the idea of the one-way couplet. Approximately $17.2 million subsequently was awarded through a combination of FLAP funds and CDOT RAMP (Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships) money.

Muhonen had told BizWest in June that he expected construction to begin by January. In a “best-case scenario,” he said, construction could take 18 months, with completion by summer 2024. When escalating cost estimates pushed the expected completion date to fall 2025, the Board of Trustees took a pair of actions to shorten the time frame. The board approved extension of the time allowed for the noise of construction from 14 to 24 hours if certain criteria are met, and kicked in an additional $500,000 to guarantee matching federal funds.

ESTES PARK — Still reeling from the soaring cost estimates for completion of Estes Park’s traffic-diffusion project known as the Downtown Loop, the town’s Board of Trustees has scheduled a special meeting for Nov. 17 to discuss the fate of the still-controversial plan.

The Loop, which would turn downtown streets into a one-way couplet to speed traffic to and from Rocky Mountain National Park, was conceived nine years ago and approved in 2016 by the town board after a contentious debate that divided area residents and business owners. Opposition to the project became largely muted after the town board’s vote, but…

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