GREELEY — If thousands of affordable new homes are built in Weld County, they will be filled.
Many of the people who live in those homes will commute to work.
And that means they’re going to need some new roads to get to and from their jobs.
That’s the reality Weld County officials face as their western and southern borders, from Windsor to Erie, develop into mini-metropolises.
While a handful of state highways provide decent east and west access through the county, Interstate 25 and U.S. Highway 85 are the only north-south arterials offering alternatives to a disconnected grid of county roads, Weld County Commissioner Rob Masden said.
But Weld County officials are planning for more commuting options. They have identified seven key roadways that need to be improved, widened, revamped, rebuilt or connected.
Essentially, the plan proposes transforming Weld County Road 13, WCR 7, WCR 49 (through Keenesburg) and others into four-lane roads, taking local drivers off I-25 and U.S 85 and pointing commuters into the Denver metro area.
Plans also show Colo. Highway 119/WCR 24 extending east to U.S. 85.
Weld County Commissioner Mike Geile said this strategic planning began five years ago as a result of transportation studies in the county.
“We analyzed the numbers and saw that I-25 was becoming a local destination route ... and from that, we realized that we needed some parallels,” he said.
Geile explained that congestion on I-25 in Weld County is partly due to people going short distances within the county, and he said good roads running alongside the interstate would relieve traffic jams for people who use the interstate for longer-distance commuting.
There’s no hard timeline for Weld County’s road plans, except that officials want the upgrades to coincide with growth, Weld County public works director Frank Hempen said.
He said the price tag for building the roads to meet the needs of the projected growth is estimated at $370 million, paid for through growth impact fees, grants and private developments.
“It’s a pay-as-you-go program,” Hempen said. “Right now, we are scheduled out for about 10 years.”
But in some places, the growth has already come to Weld County, while the first of these new transportation routes is just getting off the drawing board.
“It could have been done earlier, but at least we are doing it now,” Masden said.
He said the county isn’t really late coming to the table.
Masden said the transportation projects furthest along, WCR 13 and WCR 7, are in response to estimates of 200,000 new residents moving to southwest Weld County in the next 20 years.
One day, officials hope WCR 13 will be four lanes stretching from Colo. 14 east of Fort Collins to C-470. Work on that project, including rebuilding a dangerous intersection at Colo. Highway 52, is expected to be complete in 2007, and the county has begun working with landowners to acquire land needed for the widening.
Work on the projects, Hempen said, “needs to be now, so that as development continues, we won’t put ourselves in the position that development squeezes us along those roadways.”
But Geile said flexibility is part of the strategic planning on the roads, and he pointed to the recent controversy with WCR 7 as an example.
Weld County’s proposed WCR 7 expansion called for the road to slice through St. Vrain State Park. That plan prompted the state to freeze millions of grant dollars earmarked for improvements on the park, which in turn miffed leaders from local municipalities who view the park as an important outdoor attraction.
Geile said the county may kill the project, though it has already spent $200,000 planning for it.
He said that’s the nature of long-term planning.
“All of these things are always a work in progress,” he said. “You never stop planning with a strategic plan.”
Douglas Crowl can be reached at 303-684-5253, or by e-mail at email@example.com.