EAGLE COUNTY — If it seems like Interstate 70 over Vail Pass has been closed more often this winter than the past few seasons, then you’re right.
A combination of weather, timing and human error has conspired to temporarily close the pass — and snarl traffic from Vail to the Denver area — several times already this season, with the snowiest months of March and April still to come.
The worst day by far was Feb. 9, when inch-an-hour snow hit at roughly the same time seemingly every skier on the Front Range wanted to go home. That one-two punch shut down I-70 for several hours. There were stories of trips to the Denver area taking six hours or more. While snowplows struggled to keep up, their work was also hamstrung by heavy traffic that kept the plows bottled up. A further complication came from drivers that day.
Snow and Careless driving
The Colorado Department of Transportation runs a weekend “Courtesy Patrol” to help motorists along the mountain corridor. According to department spokeswoman Amy Ford, that patrol was overwhelmed Feb. 10. Ford said a total of 57 cars either drove off the road or were incapacitated in their lanes — most often they were unable to get re-started on a steep uphill slope. Of those cars, the Courtesy Patrol helped 22 drivers. Of those, 19 had bald or nearly-bald tires — 18 of those were from Colorado.
Which leads to one of the big problems state transportation officials face today. As opposed to a period in the mid-1990s when weather conditions overwhelmed crews trying to keep the high passes opened, Ford said every Vail Pass closure this winter has been due to a vehicle problem of some kind. Even a car that can’t get going again on the uphill run creates congestion out of proportion to the time it takes to clear.
Ford said for every minute it takes to clear an incident, it takes six minutes for traffic to get back to normal. That’s why state officials are looking into ways to try to clear those incidents faster.
The state is also trying to find ways to keep some predictable incidents from happening at all.
For instance, if a car with bald or inadequate tires doesn’t have to stop on the tunnel approach, it doesn’t have to be re-started. Ford said state transportation officials this weekend will “meter” traffic at Silverthorne and Frisco, so waves of traffic can head up the hill without getting backed up and stopped.
State officials started metering traffic during Presidents Day weekend, and Ford said the tactic helped “a lot.”
Ford said metering might leave people sitting in Summit County for 20 or 30 minutes, but that’s better than sitting even longer on the tunnel approach.
Another part of the plan is an education push, Ford said.
“We’re really encouraging people to keep chains or ‘traction socks’ in their cars,” Ford said.
One cloth traction sock can get a car going, Ford said, adding that the transportation department is now seeking approval to sell them at chain-up stations.
The Department and Colorado State Patrol may also start “traction checks” where people get on the highway.
“We’re working on a number of strategies,” she said.
While the Eisenhower Tunnel’s biggest traffic periods come in the summer, there’s something about a big snowstorm on a go-home day that tends to focus attention on the highway. And it’s easy to wonder when, or if, hours-long trips to Denver might start discouraging skiers.
“I think we’re already there,” said Rob LeVine, general manager of the Antlers Lodge in Vail. LeVine said he has no way to know how much business doesn’t come because of the difficulty in getting back to the Denver area, but he’s certain there are people who are no longer willing to put up with the headaches that come with getting into and out of the mountains.
“It’s not the seven-hour trips once in a while, but the consistent four-hour trips every weekend,” LeVine said. “If it was me, I’d stay Sunday night and go home Monday, but a lot of people can’t do that.”
So, what are the answers? Transportation officials this past week essentially spiked one idea — a train system. A press release from the department stated that a recent study indicates that a rail system from Vail to Denver is technically, but not financially, possible.
LeVine said he believes increased attention on the Eagle County Regional Airport could help traffic, at least the traffic coming from people who fly to Denver, then drive to the Vail Valley.
“It can be a piece of the puzzle, and maybe a pretty meaningful one,” LeVine said.
Other answers will have to come from Denver. Plans are already in place to create toll lanes through Clear Creek County, but with a rail system off the table, visitors’ best bet might be just waiting a few hours before going home on Sunday.