Traffic on Interstate 70 between Vail and Denver will be complicated again this year, thanks to yet another project at the Twin Tunnels just east of Idaho Springs.
The Colorado Department of Transportation’s Transportation Commission on Thursday approved a $55 million project to widen the westbound Twin Tunnel. The project comes on the heels of a 2013 project that widened the eastbound bore of the tunnels. The detours used for that work are still in place and will be used for the westbound tunnel project.
“Both of these initiatives mark significant progress for one of the most challenging transportation issues facing Colorado,” CDOT Executive Director Don Hunt said. “All the parties have worked together in creating a shared vision for this corridor that once implemented will enable us to reduce congestion and improve safety.”
Hunt added that a “memorandum of understanding” between the state, Clear Creek County and the city of Idaho Springs “will allow Colorado to make more progress on I-70 than we have seen in decades.”
In addition to the 2014 tunnel work, the state also plans to add a “peak period shoulder lane” to I-70 between Empire Junction and Idaho Springs. During peak travel periods for parts of the year, the eastbound shoulder would be used as a third, express toll lane. Transportation officials say the new lane will expand capacity — particularly for traffic headed to the Winter Park area to and from Denver — without expanding the highway’s footprint. That lane is expected to be open to traffic by July 2015.
‘Mountains are open’
State officials and local officials put a lot of time and effort into the 2013 tunnel project, trying to educate motorists about expected traffic delays and provide options to travelers — including special deals on dining and lodging for people who wanted to stay in the mountains for an extra few hours.
The campaign to let people know that the “mountains are open for business” apparently succeeded if Vail summer sales tax revenues are any indication.
On the other hand, the tunnel project created some problems for companies that have vehicles on that stretch of highway.
Seth Minkoff, a dispatcher for Eagle County-based Green Limousine, said last year’s project made it more difficult to move drivers and passengers between the Vail Valley and Denver. Four-hour trips often turned to six-hour trips, Minkoff said, making it more difficult for his company to schedule service.
And Ken Hoevy, owner of locally-based AlpenGo Mountain Transportation, said he believes education and strict enforcement of existing traffic laws might be more helpful than spending millions on widening one stretch of highway. In Hoevy’s view, without widening the entire corridor between Vail and Denver, getting dawdling motorists out of the highway’s left lane would be more beneficial.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” Hoevy said. “The nice thing is they finished by winter, when we do most of our business.”
But Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said doing the westbound tunnel project this year makes quite a bit of sense, since the construction site is still fresh from the eastbound tunnel work, so existing detours and other highway features can be used. Still, he said, this year’s work will probably be more complex, since it’s likely more rock will have to be removed.
The tunnel project also is the first really big part of long-term plans that have been brewing for years.
“One of our big initiatives was to deal with the ‘pinch points’ on I-70,” said Zemler, who is Vail’s representative on the I-70 Coalition, a group of local governments along the mountain corridor. The tunnels might be the biggest of those pinch points.
And, he added, what last year’s project proved was that the state could get the work done “in a reasonable fashion,” Zemler said.