EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Most holiday weekends, eastbound Interstate 70 between Silverthorne and the Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnels can look more like a parking lot than a highway. The Colorado Department of Transportation is trying a new trick this year that might allow motorists to drive more and sit less.
Transportation officials for the past few years have tried "metering" at the tunnels, mostly for eastbound traffic at the end of weekends. That system stopped traffic on the west side of the tunnels, to keep traffic from backing up in the tunnels themselves - which can create serious safety problems.
But keeping the tunnels clear came at a price - major delays.
"For every minute you delay traffic, it can take between four and eight minutes to get it moving again," CDOT spokeswoman Stacy Stegman said. "That means a 20-minute delay can turn into 90 minutes."
That, in turn, creates thousands of frustrated motorists.
This year, transportation officials are working on a new system to keep traffic moving.
Near the tunnel, eastbound traffic is funneled from three lanes to just two. At about that spot, the transportation department is working on a system that on heavy-traffic days will move traffic into four lanes. Those lanes will use the highway's existing shoulders, so no widening work will be needed, Stegman said.
Those four lanes will all have fast-cycling traffic lights similar to those in use at on-ramps in the Denver metro area and Idaho Springs. Stegman said using the system on highways has been done in areas with bridges that carry a lot of traffic, and can move vehicles pretty effectively.
The system will get its first test next month, just as holiday traffic starts to really build, Stegman said. That first test will use a combination of human flaggers and traffic lights.
Over this holiday weekend, the state will start its winter-season "courtesy patrols," in which tow trucks will be available to get broken-down motorists to safety.
And traffic could be pretty heavy this weekend. Wave Dreher, the spokeswoman for AAA Colorado, said that group expects holiday travel this year to be at about the levels it reached last year.
According to AAA, nearly 650,000 state residents will travel at least 50 miles by car over Thanksgiving. Nearly half of those people were expected to travel Wednesday, but just 36 percent are expected to travel Sunday. Dreher said some people will extend their weekends by a day and travel Monday.
Dreher said that while fuel prices are finally starting to slide a bit from their summer-season highs, drivers will pay significantly more this Thanksgiving than they did in previous years.
The average Thanksgiving weekend price of gas was $2.97 per gallon between 2009 and 2011. The state average at the moment is $3.39 per gallon, with prices in the upper valley closer to $3.90.
Still, people seem willing to buy gas, or sit in traffic, to get where they want to go.
"People are still traveling by car - the pull of friends and family is strong," Dreher said.
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