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Airport interchange money grounded

Tamara Miller

EAGLE COUNTY An airport interchange has been booted off a list of projects that could be funded out of a proposed state budget fix.As long as Eagle County and local towns refuse to contribute money for the interchange – which would lead directly from I-70 to the airport – it can’t be built, said Ed Fink, the region’s transportation director.”It’s been made very clear that this isn’t feasible,” Fink told Eagle County Commissioners this week. “We’re nowhere close to coming to a financial partnership.”State transportation officials told county officials last month Eagle County could get $30 million for the interchange if voters decide in November to temporarily suspend the state’s taxpayer bill of rights, better known as TABOR. If voters approve the bill, it could free up $1.2 billion over five years for state transportation projects. But another $38 million is needed to build the estimated $68 million interchange. The state transportation department, also known as CDOT, expects local governments to come up with the balance. Local officials disagree.”CDOT needs to fund it 100 percent,” Commissioner Tom Stone said.The Board of County Commissioners now wants to take their demands to state transportation director Tom Norton and the transportation commission, which creates the department’s policies.”We need to keep beating the drum on this,” said Commissioner Arn Menconi.Long-term impactAirport passengers must now drive on U.S. Highway 6 through Eagle or Gypsum to get to I-70, the quickest way to get upvalley to Vail and Beaver Creek. The interchange would alleviate traffic on the Eagle and Gypsum roads, but also divert possible airport business away from Eagle and Gypsum shops and restaurants.The only towns that have been asked to contribute so far are Eagle and Gypsum. Both towns have relatively small budgets – annual sales tax collections for Gypsum are about $1.4 million, for Eagle, it’s about $2 million; and they can’t do it, said Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll.”I think CDOT has reversed its opinion on this project, knowing full well that it is an absolute impossibility for the towns of Eagle and Gypsum, and the county, to come up with $38 million” Shroll said this week. “They know that. They have to know that.”Eagle always has expected the state’s transportation department would pay for the interchange, Town Manager Willy Powell said. The interchange has been identified as a state and national priority because it would reduce traffic on I-70 through Denver and the mountains by encouraging more tourists to use the airport.Eagle even refrained from weighing in on the interchange design because it would make the project more expensive and the towns would have to pick up the difference, Powell said. Eagle gets the brunt of the airport traffic because most airport customers are heading east to Vail, Avon and Beaver Creek. Without the interchange, traffic in Eagle will get much worse, Powell said. The town already is trying to figure out how to pay for road expansions and new intersections that will be needed to handle future growth, which is expected to double the town’s population.”Are we going to just have to stop approving projects in Eagle because of transportation issues?” Powell asked.Going to the topEagle County doesn’t have enough money, either, Stone said. The county and the towns had planned on paying for a study that would identify which communities benefit most from the airport. The idea behind that study would be to determine how much money could be raised locally, and who should pay. After Tuesday’s discussion, the commissioners decided to not participate in the study. Eagle and Gypsum are expected to follow suit.Commissioner Peter Runyon asked Fink why the interchange needed to be removed from the project list. If voters suspend the taxpayers’ bill of rights in November, there would be some money set aside for the interchange. Local governments could work on coming up with the rest, Runyon said.But if there is no local contribution, the transportation department would still be legally required to build the project, Fink said. When voters consider the bill in November, they will also be considering the projects that would be funded if it passes.Would the state be obligated to pay for the entire project then? Runyon asked.”No one would expect you to build a $70 million project halfway,” he said. “If no local funding came through… yeah, we’d have a problem,” Fink responded.Now that the interchange project is off, Eagle County actually is slated to receive less than before. If the taxpayers bill of rights is suspended, Eagle County will receive $23 million to improve I-70 on Vail Pass and through Dowd Junction. “We’re losing ground the more we talk,” Stone said.Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607 or tmiller@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado


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