EAGLE COUNTY — If you live here, then you know Interstate 70 between Vail and Denver rolls open and easy most of the time. That may be something of a surprise to Front Range visitors trying to go home on Sunday afternoons.
The hours-long traffic delays on the highway during that relatively short time have some believing the only answer is a multi-billion-dollar rail system or highway-widening project. But the Colorado Department of Transportation doesn’t have multi-billions just gathering dust in the basement, and it isn’t likely to in the next couple of lifetimes. That means other strategies are needed to ease congestion during those peak periods.
So state transportation officials, along with the I-70 Coalition, a group made up of governments and businesses along the highway corridor, recently unveiled the “Change Your Peak Time” campaign. The idea is to encourage motorists to linger a few hours in the mountains before heading home.
“Once people better understand that they have the choice of how to spend their time, we think they will avoid the downhill gridlock and choose to play in the mountains for longer,” Amy Ford, the department’s director of communications, wrote in a press release.
But the new project is also significant because it marks a new step in working together between the state and the regional group.
Margaret Bowes of the I-70 Coalition said that when that group rolled out its GoI70.com website in 2009, the transportation department wasn’t even sending text alerts about traffic conditions. Today, thanks in part to this past year’s Twin Tunnels project on I-70 near Idaho Springs, the state agency has both web and smartphone updates in real time to help motorists. The agency has also put up messages on its variable message boards along I-70 telling motorists to expect Sunday afternoon delays.
“They’ve really stepped up,” Bowes said.
Between the state’s traffic and road data, and the regional group’s local presence, Bowes said there’s a real opportunity to help cut congestion during peak times.
Database of Deals
One way the coalition is trying to help is with an online database of deals, from lodging to dining to shopping, to help people pass the time. As of Jan. 17, most of the deals were in Summit County, which gets more Front Range traffic than the Vail Valley does. Vail Valley deals were for lodging, with the exception of a discount deal from Eagle Valley Music & Comics in Minturn.
Alison Wadey, of the Vail Chamber and Business Association, said she expects more Vail merchants to jump on the deal bandwagon, eventually. For one thing, merchants are just finding out about the program, Wadey said. For another, those merchants are all busy with heat-of-the-ski-season activity.
“It’s just a matter of sending out the information,” Wadey said. “But it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep people in town longer.”
While individual businesses may join the effort as time passes, Vail Resorts is already involved in the program.
In an email, Kelly Ladyga, the company’s vice president of corporate communications, wrote that Vail Resorts is “very involved” in the initiative, and has offers either already on the GoI70.com website or in the pipeline.
Current offers include late checkouts at Keystone condos, depending on availability. That allows guests to check out as late as 7 p.m., which allows guests to get in a full day of skiing, then a shower back at the room.
Other offers include discounted Sunday-night stays at various lodges.
Besides deals, the coalition is trying to get day skiers to carpool or take buses, in an effort to get a few cars off the road.
In a phone interview, Ford said early efforts have had a positive effect on traffic.
“The signs have worked really well,” Ford said, adding that during the summer, delays were sometimes cut from two hours to just an hour on Sunday afternoons. The state agency is also working with trucking companies to alter Sunday-afternoon schedules.
“They don’t want to be stuck in traffic, either,” Ford said.
But there’s a wild card in any program of driver education and deals — weather. If conditions force U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass to close, the trucks carrying hazardous materials are routed through the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels every 30 minutes, closing the tunnels to other traffic.
No one can do anything about that. Most weekends, though, driver behavior can affect traffic.
“It’s a great idea by the Coalition (and the state),” Wadey said. “It’s a great marketing tool for the Front Range, too.”