EAGLE COUNTY — We aren’t getting a train. We just aren’t. That means we have to live with Interstate 70 for the foreseeable and distant future.
With that in mind, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the I-70 Coalition, a group made up of representatives from local governments along the corridor are working on ways to ease Sunday-afternoon traffic from the mountains back to the Denver area.
Those efforts started a few years ago, and will be growing during the next few years. Some involve adding capacity to the highway — the state will start work this year to add a toll lane on the left shoulder of eastbound I-70 between Empire and the Twin Tunnels. That will be finished next year.
State officials are also conducting an experiment during the next couple of weekends, using regularly-scheduled Greyhound buses. That experiment will send one bus down the highway’s right shoulder — at no more than 35 mph — during peak times and leave another in the travel lanes. The experiment is to see which bus takes less time to get to Denver.
That experiment may lead to rules that allow buses and other transit vehicles to use the shoulders, the thinking being that a faster trip home on a bus or van could make transit more attractive to more people headed to and from the mountains.
Change Your Peak Time
The I-70 Coalition, with the transportation department’s help, in January launched a marketing campaign called Change Your Peak Time, an effort to convince travelers to start heading east some time between about 1 and 6 p.m. There’s a website that provides a lot of the same information the department of transportation does. It also offers a free service to businesses — the ability to post Sunday deals that might encourage dri vers to stay a bit longer.
When the campaign first rolled out, there was just a scant handful of deals on this side of Vail Pass. At the time, the page was new, not a lot of business owners knew about the available free listings.
Since then, the deals page on the on the www.GoI70.com website has grown considerably. It now includes discounts on lodging at Vail and Beaver Creek — some of which are as steep as 50 percent for a Sunday-night stay. Other lodges offer late checkout on Sunday. The Antlers at Vail, for instance, offers free late checkout until 8 p.m. so people can ski, shower, and maybe take a dip in the pool or hot tub before heading out.
There are also discounts at retail stores and restaurants, which offer specials on everything from appetizers to entrees.
Margaret Bowes, the program manager for the I-70 Coalition, said the increase in participation in the deal program took a lot of work, and a lot of help from both the Vail Valley Partnership and the Vail Chamber & Business Association to let members know about the free listings.
“I put the ‘free’ part right at the start of my spiel,” Bowes said.
The program got off to a rough start, particularly during a massive snowstorm that hit the mountains Feb. 2. That storm, combined with lots of traffic — and scores of unprepared motorists — resulted in hours-long delays getting back to the Denver area that day.
But the past several weeks have brought more cooperative weather, and the “Change Your Peak Time” campaign seems to be having an effect.
I-70 Never Sleeps
Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Crystal Morgan said eastbound traffic is still heavy on Sundays, but the traffic volume seems more spread out during the course of the day.
Conventional wisdom for eastbounders used to be that if you’d have mostly smooth sailing if you got through the Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnel by noon or so on a Sunday.
Morgan said transportation officials are seeing significant traffic at the tunnels both earlier and later in the day on Sundays. Morgan said the afternoon and early-evening bulge in traffic has started to taper into the mornings and evenings, with some drivers heading east as late as 8 or 10 p.m. on Sundays.
“The campaign has been timely,” Bowes said. “We haven’t seen real excessive (eastbound) delays in a while now.”
With no help from rail or additional lanes on the horizon, Bowes said people are going to have to take a hard look at when they want to drive, and how much delay they’re willing to endure.
People are also going to need to be more prepared for winter driving. During the Feb. 2 driving disaster, state officials said a big portion of drivers who had gone off the road were driving with tires that were bald, or close to it. That may prompt state and local officials to into checking drivers’ vehicles on bad-weather days, something that could happen as soon as next winter.
“We’re seeing people taking more responsibility for their travel, and that’s a good thing,” Bowes said.
It would be better still if drivers would give their tires a second look before heading off for a powder weekend.