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  • Dylan Anderson

U.S. 40 traffic study shows Brown Ranch accelerates need for improvements, but doesn't cause them

A significant part of the road upgrades are the responsibility of the city, but how to pay for them is an elusive question.

A 1,600-page traffic study conducted as part of the Brown Ranch annexation process shows that traffic on U.S. Highway 40 isn’t broken right now, but it will deteriorate over time — with or without the more than 2,200 housing units Brown Ranch plans to provide.


The study looked at intersections from Routt County Road 42 into town at U.S. 40’s intersection with 13th Street, gave each a grade for the current traffic and then tried to project how that grade would change over time.


While current grades are not bad (A, two Bs and a C), the study shows things start to deteriorate by 2030, when the study assumed the first phase of the Brown Ranch comes online. By 2040, two of the four intersections receive an F grade. The grade scale is A through F, but interestingly traffic studies employ the letter E in their grades as well.


“Highway 40 is not currently broken. There is nothing wrong with it right now,” said Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Synder, who noted there is still more to glean from the extensive study. “The only time we have issues is during inclement weather or when CDOT decides to tandem plow the highway.”


The study is crucial to annexation talks because it identifies some of the key offsite infrastructure needed as the Brown Ranch comes online. The study also shows that the highway would need these improvements over time whether Brown Ranch is built or not, though Snyder said improvements are accelerated by the development.


But unlike other aspects of annexation where the improvements are largely on the Yampa Valley Housing Authority to pay for, the city has a larger share of U.S. 40 improvements, as the upgrades have benefit that reaches beyond Brown Ranch.


The four intersections studied are U.S. 40 at CR 42, at Downhill Drive, at Elk River Road and at 13th Street. Snyder said a D grade is really still livable, but that would be the time to start planning improvements.


The junction with Elk River Road and with 13th Street get the worse that the others, both earning F grades by 2040. Downhill Drive currently has an A grade, as there is no traffic signal. That changes though as the city has long worked with CDOT to put a traffic signal in at the intersection and the grade reduces to a B with that in place. Downhill Drive earns an F grade by 2040.


The CR 42 intersection is where the Steamboat Springs School District added a stoplight when it opened Sleeping Giant School. It is a B now, and drops to a D by 2040.


The recent arrival of the study and its sheer size has prevented Snyder from getting a complete grasp on the study. For example, the study says that even without the Brown Ranch, U.S. 40 needs to get wider out to near Downhill Drive by 2030. Snyder said he hasn’t seen the data supporting that statement yet.


“The verbiage in the traffic impact study says we need to widen the highway between 13th Street and just west of Downhill Drive by 2030, with or without Brown Ranch, but I’m not seeing that reflected back in the level of service calculations,” Snyder said. “That’s a question I still need to settle up on.”


In total, Snyder estimated that all the city’s share of capital improvements would be about $195 million, though some of that already has identified funding. Snyder said city staff is concerned about being able to fund about $168 million for other upgrades, mainly parks, road improvements and a new fire station.


(This drops to $114 million when not including the $54 million to construct a regional park at $1.35 million per acre. The city dropped its request for a regional park on Tuesday. Read more here.)


“It is largely out of our control,” Snyder said. “We can’t conjure up money where there isn’t any.”

Caption: This table, a recreation of what Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Snyder shared on Tuesday, shows the various projects the city will help fund, how much of the cost is on them and whether staff is concerned about finding funding. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


Not factored into Snyder’s analysis is the money that will be paid in use and excise tax due to the build out of the Brown Ranch. Previous iterations of the fiscal analysis for the Brown Ranch has predicted that could spur as much as $32 million on its own. In addition to that, Snyder said the city could pay for these upgrades through its Capital Improvement Fund, though that isn’t large enough to cover it either.


The concern for the city is if funding can’t be identified for these projects by the time they need to be complete, how does that impact the development of the Brown Ranch.


The city’s development code allows for council to deny a development because there isn’t adequate infrastructure in place to support it. For instance, if funding for many of the U.S. 40 improvements isn’t there by 2030, council could theoretically stop development until there was funding. In the same scenario, council could also decide to allow more development even if there wasn’t infrastructure funding.


Snyder suggested that council include a provision stating this in the annexation agreement, and giving future city councils the ability to halt construction if infrastructure improvements the city has to pay for aren’t keeping pace. Some on council expressed some hesitation with this, as it could prevent the housing authority from meeting other metrics being discussed.


During public comment, Yampa Valley Housing Authority Executive Director Jason Peasley said while there are worsening traffic problems on U.S. 40, the Brown Ranch brings significant funding to help fix the roadway.


“The current level of service for housing is, I’m not sure what below an F is, but it is currently there,” Peasley said, referencing the traffic study letter grades. “You have a Highway 40 problem that is a huge liability whether Brown Ranch happens or not. We can help that with $20 million. Show me another plan that brings $20 million to your current problem that you have no funding source for.”


“We’re addressing one of the most important problems that exists in the community, it’s time for the city council to make a commitment,” he continued.


Initially, Council President Robin Crossan told Peasley he would be limited to the same two minutes as everyone else. After he spoke, council member Gail Garey made a motion to give Peasley more time. That passed and he eventually gave a 10-minute presentation.


In that presentation, he pointed to commitments the community has made to delivering affordable housing, including the 2017 approval of YVHA’s mill levy, an anonymous donation to buy the Brown Ranch in 2021 and last fall's passage of the short-term rental tax by a wide margin.


“Those are huge commitments by our community to address this issue,” Peasley said. “To be at a position now we’re ‘I don’t know, what about the traffic,’ I seems like we’re not honoring those commitments.”


The Brown Ranch Annexation Committee is expected to meet again to discuss this issue, potentially as soon as later this week. Council is set to meet again on Sept. 5, where approving an annexation agreement is on the agenda.


Top Photo Caption: A rendering of Brown Ranch showing U.S. Highway 40. (Yampa Valley Housing Authority/Courtesy)

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