Traffic congestion on Interstate 70 is only getting worse and the Colorado Department of Transportation doesn’t have nearly enough money to tackle the problem.
Parsons Transportation Group, a major international engineering and construction firm, does have that kind of money. The firm gave CDOT an unsolicited proposal for improving the I-70 corridor in 2011. That got the ball rolling on the idea for a public-private partnership and CDOT is considering two proposals.
“While initially deemed as providing the ‘best value’ of the two proposals initially presented last year to provide mobility solutions for the I-70 corridor, Parsons’ proposal has not been selected to move forward,” said CDOT Communications Director Amy Ford. “We have asked Parsons to provide engineering support to CDOT’s own traffic and revenue study, which is starting now and will last another year, to determine if there is an alternative that is economically feasible and publicly acceptable. We will consider many elements of the Parsons proposal as well as that from the other proposer and finalized record of decision.”
Last week, Parsons Program Director Ralph Trapani and CDOT I-70 Mountain Corridor Manager Jim Bemelen met with Eagle County Commissioners about the Parsons proposal.
“This is a very, very aggressive schedule,” Bemelen said of the theoretical construction schedule. “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 (BRT) 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 CDOT. “There are only two locations where the express lanes would be built outside of the median.”
What about the AGS?
CDOT 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 AGS.
“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 CDOT 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 CDOT in 2011 on the same day CDOT published rules for submitting unsolicited proposals.
The total estimated cost of the project is 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 like Vail.
“It will bring more people here but where are we going to put them?” she said. “We’ve already reached parking capacity in Vail.”
Trapani said the toll and the BRT system would naturally encourage car-pooling 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, CDOT 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.