VAIL — If it seemed like Interstate 70 between Vail and Denver was closed more often last winter, then you’re right. Those closures hit their high point during a Feb. 9 snowpocalypse.
That day, a Sunday, a perfect storm — as well as several accidents and heavy going-home traffic — meant it took as long as 10 hours for many travelers to get home to the Denver area.
The storm delays on the highway have several Vail Town Council members talking about potential dire economic impacts if I-70 trips can’t become at least somewhat smoother in bad weather.
The council heard Tuesday from Ryan Rice, director of transportation systems management and operations for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Rice gave a presentation that detailed highway closures during the winter of 2013-14 compared with previous winters. Granted, the winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13 had far fewer traffic-snarling storms, one of the few positives connected with a pair of drought seasons. But there were plenty of closures that stalled traffic for plenty of time.
In some ways, traffic last winter reflected the classic line from artist Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
LACK OF PREPAREDNESS
Transportation officials say that the Feb. 9 storm revealed that the cars of most Colorado drivers helped by the “courtesy patrol” — which helps motorists who have broken down or spun out along the approaches to the Eisenhower Johnson Tunnels — showed a shocking lack of preparedness for conditions. The most common malady, Rice said, was bald or inappropriate tires.
With the state’s evaluation of the winter season nearly complete, the question then becomes what happens in the future.
One of the problems last year was a “traffic metering” program at the tunnels. That program stops traffic on the approaches in order to keep the tunnel entrances clear in case of an emergency. The problem comes when heavy traffic and heavy snow mix.
“If you stop 3,000 vehicles on a 7 percent grade in a snowstorm, they won’t all get re-started,” Rice said.
One possible answer to metering is stopping traffic at Silverthorne, then having cars and trucks follow a three-snowplow team up to the tunnels. Those roughly 15-minute delays can avoid longer snarls during bad weather, Rice said.
The trick, Rice said, is to pick the right moment to impose the foul-weather programs.
“It takes really good situational awareness,” Rice said. “You don’t want to do it prematurely, and if you wait too long, you’ll have accidents that result from deteriorating road conditions.”
Vail Town Council member Greg Moffet asked Rice how much attention state transportation officials are paying to diverting traffic, particularly transcontinental trucks — off I-70 altogether during inclement weather.
Moffet suggested letting truckers know as soon as the spot in western Utah where Interstate 15 merges with I-70. Under the right conditions, taking I-15 to Interstate 80 and then east can save a trucker five hours on the trip to Ogalalla, Nebraska, Moffet said.
FRONT RANGE RESIDENTS
Trucks are only part of the problem, though. Rice told the council there’s a strong desire on the part of Front Range residents to get back home on a Sunday.
“People see the traffic (on I-70) and still want to try,” Rice said.
For those who do want to try, Rice said state transportation officials are working with both private vendors and federal highway officials to sell more “traction devices” along I-70 during the winter.
Whatever combination of solutions the state tries on the corridor, it’s long past time to try everything possible, council members said.
“Closures on eastbound traffic has impacts,” Mayor Andy Daly said. “I’ve heard people say they don’t want to spend a whole day on I-70. ... When you have gridlock on the interstate, it affects the (Vail) frontage roads and our emergency traffic. ... It’s really becoming a crisis.”
Fellow council member Dale Bugby said traffic delays on the interstate have become worse during the past several winters. It’s long past time for solutions, he said.
“We need the highway to stay open,” Bugby said. “It’s hurting tourism, and ... it’s gotten exponentially worse over the years ... We’re willing to do anything we can do to help.”
“Closures on eastbound traffic has impacts. I’ve heard people say they don’t want to spend a whole day on I-70. ... When you have gridlock on the interstate, it affects the (Vail) frontage roads and our emergency traffic. ... It’s really becoming a crisis.”
Mayor of Vail