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Four better or worse
Eisenhower's landmark law reshapes course of Colorado communities on I-25, I-70
Ken Papaleo News

Traffic winds its way south on Interstate 25 from Denver to Colorado Springs. The north-south interstate - along with I-70 - changed the face of several communities. From Timnath to the north and Pueblo in the south, I-25 made it easier for travelers. Along I-70, Vail became one of the world's most popular resorts, while Stratton remained a dot on the landscape.
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Colorado's interstate highways were supposed to solve congestion, enhance safety and make commuting easier - and they did all of that and more.

Fifty years ago this week, President Eisenhower signed the law that brought the nation's interstate highway system from plan to reality. The freeways knit Colorado together north, south, east and west with continuous ribbons of concrete and asphalt that promoted growth and economic benefit.

Yet the uniformity of the highways belies the diversity of the communities they serve.

A half-century after the birth of the interstate system, some of the towns wrestle with challenges the roads have brought.

Here's a snapshot of four Colorado communities and the highways that helped shape them.

Pueblo

From the window of his jewelry and watch store, Andy Bulloch looks out at what used to be part of Colorado's main north-south highway, before I-25.

It went along Main Street, made a few turns, then headed out of town toward Colorado Springs as U.S. 8 5/87.

"At one time it was called the Ribbon of Death," recalled the 67-year-old retailer. "There were terrible, terrible accidents when it was a two-lane."

Pueblo Freeway - now part of Interstate 25 - was meant to solve that deadly problem. But the highway that was so modern for the 1950s is today a jumble of unsafe curves and interchanges.

It's so outdated that the section of I-25 south of the Arkansas River is the only stretch of interstate in Colorado outside of Glenwood Canyon and the Eisenhower Tunnel posted with a 50-mph speed limit.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is looking at a $1 billion-plus plan to upgrade I-25 here. It is but one of many face-lifts statewide for the interstate system, a challenging burden for CDOT and Colorado communities.

Pueblo once was the state's industrial heart. It beat with steady rhythms of smelters, blast furnaces and rail yards. Downtown sidewalks were crowded with shoppers and workers. The main highway of the Front Range, U.S. 8 5/87, went through the middle of town with a steady stream of trucks and cars.

To ease congestion, the city in the 1940s planned for one of the first freeways in Colorado. But city leaders didn't want the new high-speed road to be so far from downtown that travelers wouldn't get off to stop and shop.

"I think, at the time, it was desired to have exits where some had commercial interests," said Bob Jackson, a retired auto dealer and former state legislator.

As built, the nine-mile freeway sliced through neighborhoods. Some homes literally have the road in their front or backyards. A huge chunk of Pueblo's showcase Mineral Palace Park became part of the highway.

"We lost eight tennis courts, a swimming pool and most of that lake," said George Williams, a director of the parks department in the 1950s, while walking around the park's Lake Clara.

Eventually, the freeway became part of I-25. With numerous exits spaced close together - something not allowed today - it has become a shortcut from one end of Pueblo to the other.

Drivers hop on at the stubby Ilex Street ramps and get off at Northern Avenue a few blocks south. They take it from First Street to 13th to avoid signals.

This shows in the traffic numbers. South of the city, traffic averages just over 17,000 vehicles a day. North of Pueblo, it's 28,700. But in town, it reaches as high as 72,200 at 13th Street.

The road that once relieved congestion in the heart of Pueblo is now responsible for much of it.

The state is considering a proposal to relocate I-25 slightly east on an entirely new alignment. The old road would be converted into a parkway that would make amends with the neighborhoods.

Dan Centa, the city's public works director, has a long map hanging in the hallway of his office, showing the proposed improvements.

"Pueblo was hurt, and there are still neighborhoods that are affected by the freeway construction," Centa said. "You still see some of the resentment among the old-timers about how they were treated in the '50s."

Stratton

Change is slow and difficult in the harsh landscape of the Plains, even when the interstate comes through.

A farming and ranching community, Stratton straddles the original U.S. 24, the main road coming into Colorado from the east. It was the natural corridor to put the proposed Interstate 70.

Stratton is smack dab in the middle of the first piece of I-70 to be built east of Limon, opening in 1966.

While the high-speed interstate brought a new level of mobility to Stratton and the rest of the Plains, it didn't bring the steady growth that happened in the mountains or along the Front Range.

"A small town like this don't change a whole lot," said Loren Pottorff, 85.

Whether because of drought, economics or a highway that offers a faster ride to somewhere else, Stratton has slowly lost businesses over the past half-century. With the interstate, shoppers could reach Colorado Springs or Denver in two hours instead of four.

But the interstate is a two-way street, notes Jo Downey. The highway can bring people to Stratton as much as it takes them elsewhere.

"If you compare us to places on (U.S. highways) 34 or 36, yes, our communities have shrunk, but we're viable and it's because of I-70," said Downey, director of a regional planning agency and the nonprofit Prairie Development Corp. "We have some amenities because we have the travelers to support it."

Among Stratton's newer businesses is the highway-oriented Claremont Inn, a 10-year- old luxury bed and breakfast just off the interchange.

So the challenge for Stratton and its sister communities that dot the landscape is to nurture every opportunity that comes down the road.

For some, the road itself brought opportunity. Pottorff's family sold a chunk of farmland to the state for I-70. His brother, Harley, found work building the highway.

And it opened up the opportunity to travel.

Dorothy Brown, 93, a retired Stratton schoolteacher, recalled a trip she took as a young girl with her parents and sister in an REO truck just before Christmas 1923. The family was headed from home in Flagler, west of Stratton, to south of Omaha.

The drive today would take about eight hours. In 1923, it took three days. "People who didn't live in those times can't imagine how few amenities there were," she said.

Contrast that Roaring Twenties journey with a recent one by Darlene Pottorff, 78, Loren's wife. She recently accompanied a grandson and his friend to Memphis, Tenn., where they had business, so she could see Graceland.

They left Stratton around noon on a Friday and got back home Sunday morning.

"I got to see Elvis' place!" she said.

Timnath

Before I-25, the road north out of Denver used to go right up Main Street in Timnath, population 223 and growing.

"Where I-25 is now, when my husband and I were first married, there was no road, not even a county road," said Elsie Fisher, 78.

In the 1940s the state built U.S. 87 west of town, then in the 1960s upgraded it to Interstate 25. No one had to go through Timnath anymore, and it faded back into the trees just east of the freeway.

There it remained, somnolent and nearly invisible from the highway.

Until now.

Timnath, which began as a railroad stop, is finding itself swallowed by suburban growth from Fort Collins to the northwest - homes and shopping centers attracted by the interstate.

That's brought more traffic back to little Main Street.

So Timnath, bypassed once by the highway, is hoping to be bypassed again.

The town wants to build a short road around its east side so that traffic can avoid Main Street.

"We don't want Main Street to be the main drag," said Diane Fusaro, a kindergarten teacher who lives on Main Street. "When I first moved here five years ago, I didn't even have to look before I pulled out of my driveway. Now I have to wait up to five minutes if the school is letting out."

Timnath's Main Street was part of a north-south highway from Denver to Cheyenne in the first part of the 20th century. By 1942, Colorado had paved it from Denver as far north as U.S. 34, but it was still a dirt road north of there.

"There were times you'd go over to Harmony Road and you'd see just one car headed into Fort Collins," said Betty Willis, 76.

When the state built U.S. 87 just to the west, it aimed right at the heart of the farm of Robert Rudolph's dad.

"My father owned a half section of land," said Rudolph. "And Highway 87, which became I-25, went right through the middle of the farm. We had land left on both sides of the road."

The farm continued to produce corn, sugar beets, alfalfa and beans, along with sheep and cattle. When the interstate replaced Highway 87, it became a hassle to get a tractor from one side to the other.

"Basically, we had a three-mile stretch we had to go around," Rudolph said.

As inconvenient as that was, Rudolph said the highway made it much easier to travel.

That ease helps fuel the spread of subdivisions and businesses that surround Timnath. Despite its relative isolation on the east side of the interstate, Timnath is poised for a boom.

Vail

Of all the towns along Colorado's interstates, none has changed more over the 50 years since President Eisenhower signed the highway bill than Vail.

It's hard to top going from a quiet sheep ranch in an isolated mountain valley to one of the most popular resorts in the world.

But it's arguable that Vail wouldn't even be on the map if it weren't for Interstate 70 - a road that almost never happened across the Colorado Rockies.

Because in 1956, when the interstate system was born, the town of Vail didn't exist.

The town has a love-hate relationship with the road that made it what it is. The problem: noise.

Since the highway was finished in 1979, "Lo and behold, we started having noise problems," said Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association. "That started 20 years of debate over how Vail coexists with the highway."

The solution pushed by some in town: An 8.5-mile, $3.4 billion tunnel under Vail Mountain, starting near the bottom of the pass and coming out at Dowd Junction.

Such a thing would have been unimaginable in 1956.

It had only been 15 years since U.S. 6, the old two-lane highway here, was built over Vail Pass. But the resort's pioneers knew of plans for upgrading the road that ran along the valley floor. In October 1957, Washington approved extending I-70 west of Denver to Utah. The Vail Valley would eventually get a freeway.

"I can remember as a kid driving through old Dillon on two-lane Highway 6," said Pete Seibert Jr., son of one of the resort's principal founders, the late Pete Seibert. "It took 3 1/2, 4 hours to get to Denver from Vail."

I-70 would cut that time in half.

"It probably put us on the map more than other resorts," said Greg Hall, Vail's public works director.

The resort opened in 1962, way ahead of the new highway. Except for a five-mile piece between Vail and Dowd Junction, I-70 wasn't opened here until the late 1970s.

Yet, the elder Seibert talked shortly before he died in 2002 about his ambivalence about the highway, saying the town would have prospered well without it.

"If I had anything to do over again, I'd have done more to keep that damn highway out," he told the Rocky Mountain News.

Said Seibert Jr.: "I think my dad was responding to the aesthetic side of having the interstate go right through the valley. Its noise, primarily, that's the issue. There aren't that many places outside the immediate village that you can get away from it."

As for the tunnel idea, Seibert said, "In Europe, they probably already would have done it."

Another approach, Lamont said, is to sink I-70 into a trench and place a landscaped cover over it. Either this cut-and-cover idea or a tunnel could recoup costs by offering builders development rights to land reclaimed from the current I-70 footprint.

"The interstate had to condemn a lot of original land that was supposed to be part of Vail," said Lamont, the town's first city planner in 1972.

Either approach also could unite the north and south sides of the town now split by I-70.

"That would make Vail whole again," said Lamont.

"The boom we're creating here isn't creating a ski resort, it's creating a city. I don't care how big Vail gets, as long as it works as a city."