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CDOT, town host contentious meeting on main street reconstruction project


On April 4, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Town of Pagosa Springs hosted an informational public meeting about CDOT’s upcoming U.S 160 reconstruction project through downtown Pagosa Springs. 

The meeting turned contentious at times, with downtown business owners — particularly owners of retail shops — expressing worry that the construction will “kill” business revenues during the important months of the peak summer tourist season. 

The project will replace the current asphalt roadway with a new concrete road surface through the main street business district and is slated to begin in the summer of 2024. 

According to CDOT, the scope of the project includes a new concrete road surface between North 8th Street and North 1st Street, Americans with Disabilities Act improvements to sidewalk ramps and new pedestrian crosswalks with flashing signs installed near 3rd Street, 2nd Street and 6th Street.

CDOT’s claim, according to a fact sheet, is that a concrete surface will “prolong the road lifespan and require less frequent maintenance, increase motorist safety with a textured skid resistance surface not prone to black ice” and would be “less susceptible to wear-and-tear under heavy traffic volumes.”

CDOT has not yet selected a prime contractor to execute the project, nor were the details known about the project’s sequencing and schedule by the time of the meeting.

“When the [prime contractor] team is in place, more detailed project information will be published and shared with the public,” states a CDOT-published fact sheet. 

Such unknowns about the project led many in the packed-house meeting to question its timing, with several downtown retail business owners stating that the construction will dramatically disrupt their businesses during the summer tourist season.

Jeremy Buckingham, co-owner of Goodman’s Department Store, expressed, “how dangerous this is for our businesses.” 

He indicated his main concern is CDOT’s planned start date of early June. 

He said that the “majority of our income” is generated from June 15 to late July, and expressed worry that downtown businesses would lose “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars” if the construction takes place during those months of peak visitation to the area. 

“I want this project to happen,” he said. “I really do,” but the “timing in which it’s being done” is what he was opposed to, saying that “Pagosa will die” if it takes place as planned. 

Buckingham added that he would favor starting the project in September, or late March or April of next year, “when the timing is correct,” rather than during the busy tourist season. 

“I don’t see why we’re not doing that?” he asked.

Mary Jo Coulehan, executive director of the Pagosa Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, asked if there is any way that CDOT could negotiate with the contractor to delay work in the downtown business district until after the “key months” of “peak tourism.”

Town council member Leonard Martinez, who was in the audience at the meeting, echoed this sentiment, saying he wants to make sure the contractor is aware of the town’s peak business times, as well as the schedule of popular events in the town. 

 Representing CDOT at the meeting was Julie Constan, regional transportation director for Region 5, who was raised in Pagosa Springs. 

She addressed the concerns about construction taking place during the peak tourist season. 

“I cannot officially say that I have a ton of leverage” on that issue, she said.

However, she also explained that once CDOT chooses a prime contractor, the project would then go through the “construction sequencing and phasing process” and that CDOT representatives would be “working through this [timing issue] with the contractor.” 

She assured the audience that the town’s peak months of tourism is something that CDOT would be “taking a hard look at with the contractor.” 

“If they are wanting to rip up some of those key areas ... in tourist season, we’re gonna talk to them to try to understand why that would be a necessity and see if there’s ways we could get them to work on other things ... at least for this first season,” she said. 

On the issue of parking downtown during the construction, Constan said, “I know that’s been another hot topic, too.” 

However, she said, “Right now I cannot guarantee you that we are gonna have parking on the main highway through town.”

 She said that if CDOT required the contractor to maintain parking spaces, “it would lengthen the time of our project” because it would “limit the areas” that the contractor could work at any given time.

She explained that CDOT is requiring the contractor to keep at least two lanes open for traffic to flow through downtown during the construction, but keeping those lanes open means that parking will be sacrificed. 

“I know that’s gonna hurt, and I apologize for that, but unfortunately this is the balance that we are trying to figure out,” she said. 

Many different local entities — including Mountain Express Transit (MET), the town and the Main Street progam’s Cone Zone Committee — “are all working together to try and figure out what other access we have to parking around the edges of town,” she explained. “There is a lot of work going on right now from that perspective to try to do everything we can to try to mitigate the [parking] issue.” 

She explained that CDOT is even looking for funding to help local entities with the issue. 

“I understand that doesn’t make everyone in the room happy, but, unfortunately, with the widths that we have to work with, keeping those two lanes open, the contractor needs as much space with their heavy excavators to get that work done,” she said.

Some in the audience expressed frustration with the parking issue, with one member of the audience suggesting that CDOT should financially “compensate” business owners for lost revenues due to the lack of parking downtown during the project. 

One business owner directed her frustration toward Constan, saying, “I’m not hearing anything that you are gonna do for us ... what happens to our livelihood? You have nothing to say about that.” 

Constan replied, “Unfortunately, the way our process works, you’re right. We do not have a financial mechanism to reimburse businesses for their loss of income.” 

Other members of the audience expressed frustration with past CDOT projects in the community, and elsewhere, that took longer than planned, particularly the McCabe Creek project, and expressed worry that the upcoming construction would be a similar story. 

Constan explained that the reason McCabe Creek took three years was due to it being a “drainage channel” project that was impacted by heavy spring runoff and monsoon rains. 

She assured the audience that the current project is of a different type since it’s a surface construction project, not a drainage project, and would not be as impacted by the weather. 

Cindy Wilemon, who owns San Juan Mercantile, told the audience how her business was negatively impacted by the McCabe Creek project taking “double the time” that CDOT anticipated, and that downtown businesses are “fixing to” deal with what she went through. 

“Once you start this project, there’s gonna be all kinds of hiccups,” she said, expressing skepticism that CDOT would stick to its timeline. 

CDOT’s stated contract time limit is 382 working days, with winter shutdowns after both construction seasons. 

CDOT’s contract stipulates that it has the right to charge the prime contractor up to $8,800 per day if the contractor does not stick to this time limit.

Wilemon suggested that the $8,800 per day charge which CDOT would collect from the contractor if the project takes longer than 382 days should be divided and given to the businesses who are negatively impacted by the project’s duration. 

“Because if you’ve already got the money set aside to pay for the project, getting $8,800 a day back, where’s it going? It should go back to businesses, because we know damn right well that it’s not gonna take just 382 days,” she said.

“It’s gonna kill the downtown,” she added. “Make them stick to 382 days.”

Constan said, “At this point, it feels like we’re going in a bit of circles,” to which the crowd erupted in disfavor, wanting to continue audience comments and questions. 

She noted that she had earlier explained how McCabe Creek was an entirely different type of a project since it dealt with a waterway drainage tunnel, and that the highway project is a surface project and therefore not as susceptible to weather disruptions.

She added that she is confident that the main street reconstruction would get finished within the time frame of the contract.

“I understand that there’s a ton of emotion in this room. I get it. But it feels like right now the questions are going in circles ... if I could give back the businesses money, again, as I’ve said three times already, I would, but I can’t,” Constan said, explaining that the $8,800 per day fine would go toward covering “my staff’s time, the consultant’s time, to be out here for a longer project.”

Town of Pagosa Springs Community Development Director James Dickhoff urged the audience to tamp down on emotional rhetoric and to work toward constructive solutions. 

“We’re not here to beat up CDOT. We’re here to express our concerns respectfully,” he said. 

Wilemon responded, “Emotions are tense because you’re talking about our livelihood.” 

Constan expressed to the audience that there will be a “give and take on all sides with this project” and that CDOT would be taking the public’s concerns seriously. 

“That’s all I can tell you right now ... until we have a contractor on board, until we have a plan in place — and, yes, it will be an interactive, iterative process. It’s not just gonna be us rubber stamping what the contractor gives us,” she said.

She added, “We will be making sure that the contractor knows” the issues and concerns expressed by the downtown business owners at the meeting. 

Business owner Evelyn Tennyson defended CDOT, saying, “We’re putting everything on CDOT, and, yes, we need their help, but what if we as business owners get together to form an idea — how can we help each other — instead of just putting everything on CDOT?” 

She added that she was willing to do “a ton of stuff” at her businesses to form a sort of mutual aid society amongst the businesses downtown to help each other out. 

“What if we all help each other with this?” she asked.

Buckingham replied, “If there’s no customers ... there’s no deals to be made.”

However, he said, “I do think that we need to be respectful to CDOT and we do need to kind of tone down our emotions,” adding that Constan stepped “out of her normal element to be here to work with us on this.” 

He added, “The moment we start fighting with them on it, they will shut down and their feedback will be very limited.”

He continued, “We fully support CDOT making our city better,” but that the problem is the timing. 

“We’re rushing this,” he said.

“At this point in time,” Constan replied, “I would love to promise you that I’m gonna delay this, but I cannot. An advertisement [for the bid] is out there ... we need to see what the bid is. When we get that bid, you have my commitment, as we are working through this process, we will be taking a hard look at that timing and we will be back with answers.”

During the meeting, Mayor Shari Pierce asked if it would be possible for a group of three business owners to review the sequencing of the project after the contractor provides that to CDOT. Constan agreed to that request.