Opinion: Highway 9 project a rare chance for Grand County
Positive economic development is often a marriage of planning and hard work with a stroke of good timing. Coming out of the grips of the “Great Recession,” communities all over the state and the country are looking for ways to kick start an economy that shows signs of recovery.
Grand County and its communities are putting in the planning and hard work. Many of the towns have started grassroots initiatives and the Board of County Commissioners created an office of economic development with a coordinator to help tie those efforts together and develop a unified county-wide drive to spark further economic development.
The initiative to improve the safety of Highway 9 in Grand County started as a measure to dramatically decrease the accidents related to wildlife. The proposed improvements, which include two wildlife overpasses and five wildlife underpasses, wildlife fencing, road widening (including eight-foot paved shoulders which facilitate bike travel) and improved sight lines are all part of a plan to save the lives of animals and humans.
Upon closer examination, the project is starting to reveal aspects that directly and indirectly relate to economic development. This is where the stroke of good timing has dealt its hand.
Development of the engineering design plan for this stretch of highway started in 2011 with a partnership between the Colorado Department of Transportation, Grand County and Blue Valley Ranch. That design, along with right-of-way acquisition, is approaching completion. Earlier this year, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced its Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP) program. What that program does is provide a rare opportunity to fund the project, just as the design is being completed. The funding structure of that program requires a 20 percent match of money from local governments or private donations.
Working under a short timeline, a group of community members, Citizens For A Safe Highway 9, partnered with Grand County government and is working to secure that community match. Paul Jones, owner of Blue Valley Ranch, agreed to provide a $4 million matching grant to start the fundraising. The community group has been working hard since that time to invite more stakeholders to join the effort to secure the necessary funding by the July 1 deadline.
If the project is approved in September by the State Transportation Commission, the most obvious and direct economic development will be the location of a $46 million project that will be spread over two construction seasons. The revenue to the local economy and the new jobs generated during that time will be significant.
After the project is completed, there will certainly be the curiosity factor as the wildlife overpasses would be the first of their kind in the state. The improved highway could become an attraction rather than a hazard to avoid. A safer highway makes for a more traveled highway. There is a reason that this project has generated letters of support from agencies devoted to tourism and commerce. There is a reason that this project has generated pledges and letters for support from individuals and entities from all parts of Grand County, from Summit County and from Steamboat Springs. People recognize that this is a major highway that just isn’t safe and that a solution to the problem has been literally left at our doorstep.
Today’s Highway 9 is not the way to welcome visitors to Grand County. A rebuilt Highway 9 would be a worthy gateway to everything Grand County and northwest Colorado have to offer. Grand County may never see an opportunity like this again — to generate short and long-term economic development while making Grand County safer for visitors and residents. We cannot let this opportunity slip away.
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