DENVER (CBS4) – Esmeralda Aguilar and her family have been living in their home next to Interstate 70 in northeast Denver for more than six years.
The house, which they rent, is one of the 56 that’s slated to be demolished under the Colorado Department of Transportation’s plan to expand a 10 mile stretch of the interstate. The $1.2 billion reconstruction project got the green light from the Federal Highway Administration on Thursday.
“My first reaction was ‘Where are we going to move to where it’s affordable?'” Aguilar told CBS4.
Also among the approximately 200 people who would be forced to relocate is homeowner Bettie Cram.
“This area was actually founded in about 1880. It’s still rich in history here,” she said, referring to the Swansea neighborhood where she has lived for approximately 70 years.
Cram met her husband in Swansea and raised her children there, and she is among those who have fought CDOT’s plan for years. She has a sign on her fence that says “Ditch the Ditch” and has a line through the number 70.
“My one bottom line (is) save the neighborhood. That’s the whole goal,” she said. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”
CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt spoke about the project on Thursday and claimed CDOT has tried to minimize the impact on people who live adjacent to or in the path of the project. The plan includes burying a stretch of the interstate underground with a four-acre park above, which Bhatt says will reconnect Cram’s Swansea neighborhood with the Elria neighborhood.
CDOT would also spend $2 million on affordable housing and hire 20 percent of its labor force from the affected neighborhoods.
Community activist Candi Cdebaca says if the highway was rerouted instead of expanded, “displacement would be minimal.” But Bhatt says moving the highway simply isn’t feasible.
“It doesn’t matter what decision we make. Somebody is not going to be happy,” Bhatt said.
Bhatt said the project has been in the works for 14 years and he said ground needs to be broken soon for safety reasons.
“If you go down to the viaduct right now you can pick up a piece of the viaduct because it is coming apart,” he said, referring to one of the I-70 bridges that would be replaced.
Cram says she’s still keeping up hope that the plan gets blocked somehow.
“I will not give up,” she said with a smile. “And I will always regret it if they do this.”
The Department of Transportation announced last month that it had opened an investigation into a civil rights complaint by neighbors who claim the project discriminates against the mostly Latino neighborhood.
Cdebaca says it is irresponsible to move forward with the plan without that being settled, but CDOT says it will continue to follow the law.
“This is only one roadblock but one that we anticipated and we plan to keep going forward,” Cdebaca said, referring to the FHWA approval.
CDOT says it has the funding lined up and it will start construction next year. The project would be completed in about five years.
In addition to the 56 houses, 17 businesses would also be demolished.