VAIL - For those who think Interstate 70 traffic to and from the mountains is bad now - just wait until April.
That's when it's expected to get worse as the Colorado Department of Transportation begins a project that will add one eastbound lane from the East Idaho Springs interchange to Floyd Hill. The project also includes an expansion of the eastbound tunnel and a reconstruction of the eastbound bridge over Clear Creek that will flatten the curve at Hidden Valley, according to CDOT plans.
While the immediate future looks painful due to the construction delays, the department's goal for the end result is to make traffic run more smoothly through that area, ultimately easing congestion and shortening travel times during peak periods such as Sunday afternoons when skiers head back toward Denver.
Before the relief, however, there will be eight full months of delays, detours and congestion. The first major step is in April when eastbound I-70 traffic will be detoured around the tunnel from just west of the Twin Tunnels and returning to I-70 just west of Hidden Valley.
Preparations are already underway for the tunnel blasting, as well as construction of the primary detour and portions of the new I-70 bridge over Clear Creek.
Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said he thinks the traffic should be manageable with thoughtful planning.
"The first four months will be the most challenging," said Zemler, who also represents the town on the I-70 Coalition.
The first four months is when all of the blasting will occur. Crews will have to continuously inspect the westbound tunnel after blasting on the eastbound side, though, so westbound lane closures are expected to last longer than eastbound closures.
"Once blasting begins, four to six sequences will take place each day stopping traffic for 20-30 minutes each period," according to CDOT. "Blasting sessions will not take place during high-volume traffic periods."
CDOT will be accessible and plans to communicate throughout the entire process, Zemler said. There will be phone numbers and websites with daily updates to give drivers enough information to plan their trips accordingly.
Zemler said it shouldn't be much different than avalanche control work, for example, where you can experience some wait time, but with proper planning it should be generally avoidable.
"Occasionally people will get caught in a delay - people should be prepared for that," he said.
Chris Romer, the executive director at the Vail Valley Partnership, said the partnership plans to be a communication facilitator throughout the construction. He said he'll be in communication with CDOT and will publish updated information in the partnership's blog and newsletters.
"(CDOT is) committed to ensuring good, timely communications out to the different stakeholders, and we will do the same," Romer said, adding that the partnership will make sure the business community is aware of the traffic so they can communicate with their customers, too.
While the construction period will be painful, Romer said it should be worth it.
"Eight months of a bad experience to hopefully result in a better experience down the road is worth doing," Romer said. "Anything we do to alleviate congestion and make the I-70 travel experience easier is absolutely beneficial because it's so important to our business, to our local traffic, consumers, residents - and so important to transit from the 30,000-foot perspective."