Battle brewing over Eagle interchanges
EAGLE, Colorado – The federal government is handing out money, and that has led to a TIGER-sized catfight between Eagle County and the town of Eagle.
Both governments plan to submit applications for Interstate 70 interchange projects through the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program.
This part of the economic stimulus package will provide funding for large transportation projects that will have economic stimulus value. Nationwide, $1.5 billion has been earmarked for projects that range in cost from $20 million to $350 million.
Eagle County will apply for a $70 million grant to fund the long contemplated airport interchange project. Eagle, on behalf of the developers of the Eagle River Station project, will apply for a $20 million grant to build the east Eagle interchange. These conflicting applications generated a lengthy, often heated debate this week between county officials and members of the Eagle Town Board.
County officials are urging Eagle to back off its plan, arguing that it isn’t politically prudent to have two competing applications located within a few miles of one another.
“We see this as our last, best hope to acquire funding for the airport interchange,” said Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon.
Runyon said the county was mildly surprised to learn Eagle planned its own TIGER application. He argued that the airport interchange is a stronger project that has the backing of the Colorado Department of Transportation. He cited the airport as a major economic driver for western Colorado and said the interchange project is shovel ready and has the backing of virtually every government in the county.
In contrast, Runyon noted the east Eagle interchange is tied to the proposed commercial/residential Eagle River Station development. That proposal is currently being reviewed by the Eagle Town Board, which estimates a late September decision at the earliest. Additionally, a citizen referendum for the project is all but certain, which is unlikely to happen until 2010.
But without Eagle River Station, Runyon questioned whether the community needs the east Eagle interchange.
“You could end up with the 2009 version of the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ which you don’t want to be,” Runyon said.
Eagle officials contradicted that reasoning. Town engineer Tom Gosiorowski noted a recently completed traffic study shows the lower valley will ultimately need four interchanges between Gypsum and Eagle. “We will need both the airport and east Eagle to be built,” he said.
Town board member Scot Hun questioned the assumptions that led to the traffic study conclusion. “We have yet to approve the types of density that would drive that level of infrastructure development,” he argued.
Gosiorowski countered that interchange projects take decades for approval. “If we wait until development has already happened, we would be woefully behind the curve.”
Hunn and fellow board member Yuri Kostick voiced opposition to proceeding with the east Eagle TIGER application. Other board members were unwilling to abandon the application, but reiterated Eagle would still offer its support of the airport interchange.
“We need to make it clear we have been supportive of the airport interchange. We can do both,” said town board member Roxie Deane.
Eagle Town Attorney noted that the TIGER process is open to all governmental bodies and by applying for a grant, the town is potentially offering a large financial boon to citizens. If the east Eagle interchange was funded through TIGER, the Eagle River Station cost-share deal would be significantly altered so that the town would receive more sales tax revenues from the development.
Mayor Pro Tem Kraige Kinney noted Eagle shouldn’t throw away a chance at having a future need funded. “But I have no problem with providing a letter of support for the airport request as well.”
County officials were not inclined to return the letter-writing gesture. “I don’t feel I can support an application that is developer driven,” said Commissioner Sara Fisher.
Fisher also took issue with a report from members of the Colorado Congressional delegation that a lobbyist had been speaking with them in favor of the east Eagle plan. Town board members noted such lobbying efforts, on behalf of the Eagle River Station team, were inappropriate.
“No lobbyist should be speaking on behalf of the town of Eagle. Who knows what they are saying?” said Kostick.
Town and county staff will sit down between now and the Sept. 15 deadline for TIGER applications to work out details surrounding letters of support regarding the two projects.
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