I-70 expansion at 2 years: Mounting delays on Denver project push back big milestones

Two years after state and local officials broke ground on the expansion of Interstate 70 through northeast Denver, significant progress is evident — and a lot more work remains to be done.

The $1.2 billion Central 70 project should have made it past the 50-yard line by now but has faced mounting delays. Kiewit-Meridiam Partners, the contracting team, projected 10 months of delays to the official schedule in its most recent monthly progress report, with major work set to finish up in July 2023. That’s a full 16 months past the deadline in the schedule before it was revised last year.

Both Kiewit Infrastructure Co. and the Colorado Department of Transportation affiliate overseeing the project say they’re optimistic they’ll find ways to rein in some delays, ideally reeling completion back to late 2022, by rethinking project sequencing and making other changes.

Here is where the project stands two years in — and what drivers should expect to see in coming months and years.

What’s been done

The groundbreaking ceremony on Aug. 3, 2018, kicked off CDOT’s largest urban freeway project in more than a decade. Kiewit is expanding a 10-mile corridor between Interstate 25 in Denver and Chambers Road in Aurora to add a tolled express lane in each direction — with a second one possible in a future project. Its partners will operate and maintain the stretch for three decades under a public-private partnership deal that will cost CDOT an estimated $2.2 billion.

Besides widening, notable work so far includes:

  • Contractors have excavated nearly 1.3 million cubic yards of dirt, most of it in the west segment, the most intensive of three sections. That’s where crews are digging between Brighton and Colorado boulevards to make room for a sunken section of freeway that will replace a crumbling viaduct that runs for nearly 2 miles. Also making progress is the westbound side of a tunnel that will carry traffic beneath a parkland cover next to Swansea Elementary School, along with construction of Union Pacific Railroad’s major railroad crossing, which has driven some of the project delays.
  • In the central segment, crews have built one new span of the Colorado Boulevard bridge over the highway and started on the other.
  • The east segment is nearly finished, with restriping of newly laid pavement planned soon. Crews also built a new flyover ramp from Interstate 270 to eastbound I-70.

Throughout the project corridor, crews have placed 275,000 tons of asphalt, according to the CDOT project office. They’ve rebuilt or moved frontage roads, reconstructed 13 highway ramps, and rebuilt two bridges while getting started on 16 more.

Kiewit will return to the Denver Board of Public Health and Environment on Thursday for a 5:30 p.m. remote hearing to renew its variance on nighttime noise limits, potentially through December 2022. It has faced several restrictions to reduce the impact of the project on the highway’s neighbors in Elyria-Swansea.

What to watch for

Several big milestones are ahead — though much later than expected — according to Kiewit-Meridiam Partners’ monthly report:

  • Late spring: Opening of the new Union Pacific crossing is expected in June, or possibly sooner. It was supposed to be done this fall under the official schedule and is a linchpin for other key milestones.
  • August 2021: Completion of repaving in the central segment, between Colorado and Quebec Street, will happen about two months after traffic is placed in its final configuration.
  • September 2021: The first major traffic switch in the west segment will move both directions of travel into the new westbound sunken section between Brighton and Colorado, with enough room for three lanes in each direction. This move, which had been expected about now in the original schedule, will allow for demolition of the viaduct and excavation of the eastbound side of the trench.
  • September 2022: The second major traffic switch will move eastbound traffic into its permanent position.

More work will happen through July 2023, when KMP expects to reach the “substantial completion milestone,” including final paving, completion of the parkland cover and preparations to open the new express lanes.

Disputes over timing and budget

For now, the project’s budget has changed little. CDOT’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise, which oversees the contract, has held off on extending the official schedule to incorporate further delays. But the two sides recently asked a dispute resolution panel to sort out Kiewit’s claims for more time and money — exceeding $10 million — to compensate for difficulties it experienced working out the railroad crossing with Union Pacific.

So far, Kiewit has earned just one of seven contractual milestone payments, but it’s likely to earn a few more next year.

Keith Stefanik, the Central 70 project director, says no alarm bells have gone off, and the two sides are working well together. Kiewit spokesperson Matt Sanman says the company shares CDOT’s overall optimism and has worked to identify delays early so that there’s time to make adjustments that might reduce them.

Still, the project office expressed some concern to Kiewit in a recent scheduling document: “If past performance is a predictor of future events, it is reasonable to conclude that the Project will continue to have construction productivity issues, nonconforming work, and changes in design during construction that will cumulatively result in additional future delays.”

Stefanik says he’s hopeful that won’t happen.

“Right now, on paper, our schedule is pushing out into 2023, but our goal coming into this was to reach substantial completion at the end of 2022,” he said, adding: “We are really confident that we can, over the next two and a half years or so, find innovative ways to mitigate this schedule.”

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