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A bridge too useless?

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Commissioners concede Wadsworth-Bowles span has found very few fans

By Emile Hallez

All three Jeffco commissioners conceded last week that, in hindsight, construction of the massive pedestrian bridge over Wadsworth Boulevard was a poor use of federal and local sales-tax money compared to other road projects throughout South Jeffco.

Though the commissioners didn’t exactly praise the $3 million construction project at an Oct. 20 citizen-input meeting, Commissioners Faye Griffin and Don Rosier said that $1.35 million in South Jeffco sale-tax revenue had to be used in the area. Further, they said, the project was initiated in 2002, a time when the economic outlook was far from grim.

But they rendered more candid opinions in interviews with 9News, for a story in which Commissioner John Odom referred to the bridge as a “monument to government waste.”

And in an interview with the Columbine Courier, Odom, who was appointed to the office well after contracts were awarded for the project, said he did not know of a reliable means to halt projects in similar situations in the future.

“How could it have been stopped? … How do you come in, in the middle of the process, and stop something?” he said. “It’s all about the timing. … Every two years a new commissioner is elected, so we’re constantly going to have someone new coming in,” he added, referring to the project being handled by numerous commissioners since 2002. “There’s not that much else that could have been done. It’s such a shame.”

Transportation and Engineering Director Kevin French, who actively opposed the project before temporarily leaving a job with the county in 2007, said different commissioners and others could have re-evaluated the bridge concept at various points.

“If the decision-makers had decided to re-evaluate, they certainly had opportunities to do that. … (But) once the contract was awarded, and they started construction, it would have been very difficult,” he said, noting that the $1.65 million in federal funds were earmarked for the job. “Buried in the legislation was an earmark for this project. … It was specific to this intersection and could only be used at this location.”

French, who was rehired with the county in a higher position last year, after construction contracts were awarded, said he told his supervisor the bridge portion of the road-widening project was a bad idea.

“I had expressed reservation about the need for the bridge, given the pedestrian activity,” he said of low foot traffic at the intersection at Bowles. “I was voted off the steering committee.”

Odom, who said he began researching the background of the project after the television station requested county e-mails related to it, commended French for participating in an on-camera interview.

“He was against the bridge. He was actually taken off from working on the bridge. … I thought that was pretty good of him to take that bullet,” Odom said, noting that dissent regarding the project was apparently rampant throughout the county offices. “I think there’s pretty wide consensus around here that it wasn’t the highest, best use of funds.”

Griffin, who voted last year along with former commissioners Kathy Hartman and Kevin McCasky to approve contracts for the bridge and road widening, said she would not have voted the same way if she had to make a decision today. However, she added, she was not aware of any concerns employees had expressed about the need for a pedestrian bridge.

“In the economy today, I probably would not have voted for it,” she said. “I really wish someone from our department would have come up to the commissioners and said, ‘This is a bad idea.’ ”

However, she took issue with statistics apparently showing no vehicular accidents involving pedestrians at the busy intersection. She said accidents in which jaywalkers contributed to vehicle rear-ending others weren’t considered, and that no pedestrian accidents likely occurred because people avoid crossing at the intersection.

“There’s no accidents because people probably didn’t go that way. … It shouldn’t be that the bridge is worthwhile because someone was killed. … It’s a safety issue,” she said. “They’re doing redevelopment there. Let’s just say the economy is going to get better. … There’s going to be more people using the bridge than there are today.”

Further, she said, the overall $8.7 million intersection project itself has had few detractors. And after seeing the bridge, she doesn’t understand criticism of the structure’s aesthetics.

“It’s painted blue. It matches the sky. … I didn’t think it was all that bad looking,” she said. “I haven’t heard any complaint about us doing the widening, and it is a busy intersection.”

Rosier, who said he would rather have seen the money dedicated to other road improvement projects, such as at Quincy and Hampden, noted that two different sets of county commissioners approved the project in various stages, which was initially intended to involve a flyover section of Wadsworth above Bowles. Due to the high cost of that option, the road widening and bridge were considered.

“They took the advice of staff and these local community groups that a pedestrian bridge was necessary. We as county commissioners rely heavily on recommendations of staff and these special advisory panels,” he said. “I would feel better giving those federal dollars back.”

Concerning the county’s ability to prevent projects from proceeding after future information might reveal similar problems for a specific project, contracts need to be drafted with that in mind, Rosier said.

“You need to put triggers in place,” he said. “You put language within the contract that funding can be pulled at any point in time.”

And about maintenance of the bridge, for which the county is now obligated for decades, Odom took a jab.

“We’re still trying to figure out, if there’s no tracks on the bridge, do we still have to remove the snow?” he said.

 

Contact Emile Hallez at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.