EAGLE — Traffic congestion on Interstate 70 is only getting worse and the Colorado Department of Transportation doesn’t have near enough money to tackle the problem.
Parsons Corporation, a major international engineering and construction firm, does have that kind of money. The firm gave the Department of Transportation an unsolicited proposal for improving the I-70 corridor in 2011. That got the ball rolling on a public-private partnership, and things are starting to get serious.
On Tuesday, Parsons Program director Ralph Trapani and Department of Transportation I-70 Mountain Corridor manager Jim Bemelen met with Eagle County commissioners about the big ideas that are already in the planning stages in anticipation of a 2021 completion date.
“This is a very, very aggressive schedule,” Bemelen said. “It’s unlikely, but the project could be completed by 2021.”
The proposal is a three-phase project that would add tolled express lanes and a bus rapid transit system along I-70. The express lanes would be reversible to accommodate peak traffic flows to and from the mountains. The project would also straighten some curves on the interstate and resurface the existing lanes. Tunnel bores would have to be added at places such as the Eisenhower Tunnel, and parts of the new lanes would be suspended like the current highway is through Glenwood Canyon.
“We are very concerned about minimizing the footprint as much as possible,” said Trapani, who spent the bulk of his career working for the Department of Transportation. “There are only two locations where the express lanes would be built outside of the median.”
The Department of Transportation recently completed a feasibility study for an advanced guideway system (think high-tech trains capable of fast speeds). Less than a year ago, proposals were being considered and plans outlined hopes for a similar timeline of completion around 2025.
“The feasibility study determined that’s not going to happen at this time,” Bemelen said. “An AGS can’t pay for itself is the dilemma we’re finding.”
Trapani said the Parsons project will lay the groundwork for a future advanced guideway system.
“With the express lanes, there would already be a platform in place where the AGS could be installed,” he said. “Also, the BRT system will help you gauge ridership. Having an established ridership in place is good to have before you build something like an AGS, instead of starting with no ridership.”
Paying for itself
With the partnership between the Department of Transportation and Parsons, both entities are taking an equal financial risk and CDOT has the opportunity to back out if things fall apart, Trapani said. That gives Parsons a deep incentive to make sure the project is successful.
“We’ve actually been working on this since 2007,” Trapani said of the corporation’s early studies.
Parsons developed a sketch-level financial model in 2010 that “proved to be very promising” and then submitted an unsolicited co-development proposal to the Department of Transportation in 2011 on the same day CDOT published rules for submitting unsolicited proposals.
The total estimated cost of the project is estimated around $3.5 billion. The 50-year gross toll revenues are projected to be $8.6 billion with a surplus cash flow of $502 million after costs and debt service are accounted.
Trapani said those numbers were calculated very conservatively.
“It’s unique to have a project like this have a cash surplus,” he said.
Trapani said when the interstate was built through Glenwood Canyon in the 1980s and ’90s, federal funds paid for 92 percent of it.
“Those days are gone and now we have to come up with ways for projects to pay for themselves,” he said.
He said tolls for the I-70 express lanes would be dynamically priced, meaning tolls would be more expensive during peak demand.
“With max pricing, a trip from Denver would cost about $26,” Trapani said. “How much is your time worth — do you sit in gridlock traffic or pay, knowing you can maintain 60 mph to your destination?”
Congestion on the free I-70 lanes will be slightly relieved by people using the toll lanes as well, Trapani added.
“Not much, though,” he said. “Those will continue to get worse for traffic.”
Commissioner Sara Fisher said the project sounds like a great idea but wondered if it considers the impact it would have on ski destinations such as Vail.
“It will bring more people here but where are we going to put them?” she asked. “We’ve already reached parking capacity in Vail.”
Trapani said the toll and the BRT system would naturally encourage carpooling and bus ridership.
“People won’t want to pay for two cars,” he said. “There are some ideas to resolve some of your concerns.”
Right now, the Department of Transportation is waiting on more studies. Assuming that all goes well, design and construction is slated to start at the end of 2016.
Meanwhile, traffic keeps getting thicker on I-70, Bemelen said.