A legal dispute between the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Webb family of Durango involving the "Bridge to Nowhere" alleges the department acted fraudulently in its plans for rerouting U.S. Highway 550 south to New Mexico.CDOT's plans call for the highway to be realigned across ranchland owned by the family, bypassing the current Farmington Hill switchback and connecting with the bridge and interchange at its current location east of the Farmington Hill intersection.
In the action filed Jan. 28, the Webb family claims it has opposed the realignment for more than 10 years and CDOT was aware of the opposition.
The bridge, or more accurately, overpass, is nearly complete while a new stretch of highway likely won't be built for years, if ever.
The Webb family owns 593 acres, most of it south of U.S. Highway 160 and east of U.S. Highway 550, and CDOT's plans to realign Highway 550 between County Road 220 and U.S. 160 would nearly bisect the Webb property.
Chris Webb, who grew up on the family ranchland in the 1950s and 1960s and now lives in Michigan, said the dispute is centered on CDOT's "Fourth Lane Project," which will add a second westbound lane to U.S. 160 between Grandview and the current Farmington Hill intersection. The Webbs own land on both sides of U.S. 160 and agreed to CDOT's condemnation of their property in 2006 for construction of the fourth lane.
The problem, said Webb, is CDOT was not entirely truthful about its intentions.
Change of heart"In 2007, they started condemnation proceedings to take the property on both sides ... and frankly, we then agreed to let them take possession of that property early in 2008, which they had a legal right to do," Webb said.
"Then we saw they were building the bridge instead of doing that work, and that's when we started opposing this process."
Richard Reynolds, director of CDOT's Region 5, said the department proceeded with its plan after the completion of an environmental impact statement and record of decision in May 2006. He said the Webbs had the opportunity to comment in the EIS, which they did, and did not oppose CDOT's plans at that time.
"They said they wanted to look at the final realignment, and that was it. This has been a very involved process, and (the EIS) was put out pursuant to that - in the intervening time, they decided to take their present course of action," Reynolds said.
In the EIS, a Denver-area attorney representing the Webb family did not specifically oppose a new interchange for the 550/160 intersection, but did challenge CDOT's future traffic estimates.
CDOT claimed in the EIS that the Farmington Hill intersection would perform at a service level "F" - a failure - by the year 2025, but Webb's attorney claimed the assumed growth rate is incorrect and the intersection, in fact, would perform at a "C" level.
"This discrepancy calls to question the very need to relocate U.S. 550 and construct a very expensive interchange," the attorney wrote in the EIS. "While I am hopeful that a reasonable compromise will be reached for the Farmington Hill Intersection, I think it is important to preserve your opportunity as an impacted land owner to question the justification for any major highway improvements at this location."
Archaeological findsFurther complicating the issue, Webb said, is the 2008 discovery of numerous archaeological sites dating to the ancestral Puebloan period on the property, several of which lie in the direct route of the proposed realignment.
His lawyer, Detroit attorney Thomas McNeill, said he believes CDOT was disingenuous from the beginning and intended to condemn the Webb property regardless of its historic potential, which was confirmed in August 2008 by the Washington, D.C.-based Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
"Although CDOT representatives conducted purported cultural resource surveys on the ranch in 1995, 1998, 2002 and 2007, they missed all the other archaeological sites. (Ignacio architect and archaeologist) Doug Loebig discovered those in July 2008 at the expense of the owners of the Webb Ranch," McNeill wrote in an e-mail.
Neither McNeill nor his client backed down in an ensuing phone interview from Webb's Michigan office.
"They want to exercise eminent domain and condemn the ranch, and up until the judge ruled on Jan. 28, they intended to use that power to destroy this ranch," McNeill said.
He said much of the story has yet to be told, but everybody assumes a deal has been struck.
Negotiations between the sides on how much the 160 land is worth was halted when the legal challenge began. No rights of way have been established for the 550 reroute south, across their property.
And the Federal Highway Administration has reopened the administrative record, saying it was going to re-evaluate the project, which will take at least until 2009.
"Here they are building this bridge and ramps based on a highway that can only go through our ranch. All the projections have changed - we're in a completely different ballgame," McNeill said. "They continued to build this, knowing the feds were re-examining it, and they're taking stimulus money - (CDOT District 5 Commissioner Steve) Parker and Reynolds need to be asked some hard questions. Everything went off the table, and they're acting like it didn't."
Stimulus moneyCDOT recently received $4 million in funding for the bridge from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which brings the total funding to date for the Fourth Lane Project and the interchange to about $35 million.
Reynolds said he prefers to let the courts decide the outcome based on the facts in record. He said whether or not U.S. 550 is rerouted across the Webb property, the interchange and bridge will serve its function based on future traffic projections and development of the Three Springs residential and commercial project south and west of Mercy Regional Medical Center in Grandview.
"The next step is to complete the environmental review on the Webb property and review the archaeology studies, but I'm not going to debate this with Chris Webb through (the newspaper)," Reynolds said.
Webb said he has proposed several alternative routes for the highway realignment to CDOT from professional traffic engineers hired at his own expense.
He said he is concerned that any appearance of impropriety or misuse of the federal stimulus funds could have an adverse effect on future funding for Colorado, which already is 49th on the list of states in terms of stimulus funds appropriated.
"In our view, this is about principles, and we're not trying to get any money from CDOT through the court action," Webb said.
"We want to do the right thing for Durango, and our hope is that we can work out a global solution. It's not just about a road that's not needed; it's about spending this money and losing the credibility. ... I think it's unusual that private landowners would do all this work, but I have no regrets - I was raised on this ranch, and I'll do whatever it takes."