Eight years of advocating for wildlife crossings, more passing lanes and resilient highways: Steamboat local departing state transportation commission
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The most straightforward advice Kathy Connell has for whoever takes her place as Northwest Colorado’s representative on Colorado’s Transportation Commission is to have a strong windshield and a healthy respect for the speed limit.
“Whoever gets appointed, they need to have better windshields than I did. I went through four,” she said. “And they need to not be so busy, so they don’t get as many speeding tickets on the way down.”
Connell has put 90,000 miles on her car, making the trek to and from Denver as a Transportation Commissioner for eight years, representing Routt, Moffat, Grand, Jackson, Rio Blanco, Gilpin and Clear Creek counties. Each commissioner is appointed to their four-year term by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. As a whole, the commission helps form the policy and budgets that see Colorado’s roadways managed, maintained and constructed.
This summer will be Connell’s final season on the 11-person commission, as she’s reached the two-term limit transportation commissioners are allowed.
She’ll serve until Gov. Jared Polis appoints a new commissioner to represent Northwest Colorado. Four other commissioners will term out this year, and two more commissioners will have completed their first term, leaving the possibility of six seats on the commission turned over this year.
A lot has changed on Colorado’s highways in those eight years. Of them, Connell said three stand out as accomplishments from her tenure on the Transportation Commission.
The one she’s most proud to have been involved in are the wildlife crossings on Colorado Highway 9, south of Kremmling. Collisions with wildlife accounted for 60% of the collisions reported to law enforcement on that stretch of highway, according to a Colorado Department of Transportation report.
Connell said this was once the deadliest highway for wildlife in Colorado.
“It’s a historic migration stretch for elk, for bear, for all sorts of wildlife,” she said. “There have been people killed. There have been unbelievable amounts of property damage and animals killed.”
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By counting the number of wildlife carcasses on the side of the road, CDOT and other agencies have determined that the number of wildlife killed in collisions fell from an average of 56 before the overpasses, underpasses and other measures were installed, to six deer in winter 2017 to 2018, a decrease of 89%, according to the report. Wildlife-vehicle collisions also fell, from 10 on average to one in 2016.
She’s particularly proud of the project not just in the success in allowing wildlife to safely cross, but because of the partnerships and involvement from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, local ranchers and communities in funding the crossings.
As a new commissioner, Connell helped plan the project that enlarged the Veterans Memorial Tunnels, also known as the Twin Tunnels, on Interstate 70 between Idaho Springs and Floyd Hill. Connell said she persuaded CDOT staff and fellow commissioners to find funding to complete an expansion of both tunnels, instead of just the eastbound tunnel as originally planned, saving the state money by not having to complete a second round of construction.
Connell pushed for Colorado’s focus on resilient roadways. She jokes that she “will be a ghost haunting” the commission when it comes to resiliency on Colorado’s highways. In the world of transportation, this means that when a rockslide or an avalanche or whatever else closes Interstate 70, roads frequently used as detours, such as Colo. 131, Colo. 13 and U.S. Highway 40 can move people wherever they are going, safely.
Looking to the future, Connell hopes commissioners and CDOT will continue to keep resiliency in mind as they work through future projects.
Efforts to place more passing lanes on U.S. 40 on either side of Kremmling — which is in the plan, should CDOT find the money to complete it — and other projects Connell has advocated for, such as more shoulders and better surface maintenance, is a step in that direction.
She also hopes to see a Bustang route in place, connecting Steamboat and Craig to the Front Range or Grand Junction with regular bus service through CDOT’s bus line. Connell’s hope is that a commuter lot at the base of Rabbit Ears pass where U.S. 40 intersects with Colo. 14 would allow a bus to pick up passengers from Walden, who park their vehicles, and allow a safe-haven for semis and other drivers in whiteout snowstorms.
Connell hopes whoever takes her place will continue to serve as a voice for Northwest Colorado and rural areas of the state.
“I really think transportation is vital for us,” she said. “Good, effective, efficient and safe transportation is vital for our community, for our growth, for our citizens, and we’ve got to keep pounding away at it. I’ll be pounding away as a private citizen.”
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