A tunnel may run through it | VailDaily.com

A tunnel may run through it

Cliff Thompson

The drill crew’s core sampling is one visible and tangible portion of a $15 million study, conducted by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, on managing traffic on the highway between Denver to Glenwood Springs over the next 20 years.

The Interstate 70 Programatic Environmental Impact Study, or EIS, aims to resolve congestion, accommodate more traffic and other modes of transportation such as a monorail or light rail. Such projects through the High Country typically require an environmental impact study because they occur on Forest Service and other public land. A draft of the proposal is expected to be completed this summer outlining projects and improvements expected to cost $800 million to $6 billion. It’s one of 16 studies being used by the department for managing transportation across the state.

“This is a kind of wish list,” said Keith Powers, the department’s resident engineer in Eagle County. “We’re taking a look out 20 to 50 years and looking into the crystal ball. There are a myriad projects.”

If nothing is done, gridlock is a very real possibility. Total traffic volume measured at Vail Pass on a typical Saturday this year, for example, shows 19,200 vehicles. By 2025, that number is expected to more than double to 38,800 per day, according to the department’s figures.

Add snowy weather and traffic accidents to the mix and there’s little room for error.

“As it stands, traffic congestion is reaching a critical point and it will worsen if nothing is done,” said Cecelia Joy, a CDOT project manager, on the department’s Web site.

Farther west in Eagle County, much of the heaviest traffic volume in the future will be commuter traffic on weekdays. Between Vail and Denver, it’s likely to occur on weekends, said Brian Pinkerton, project engineer for the Transportation Department.

Dowd tunnel

Dowd Junction, where Gore Creek and the Eagle River meet, is home to a very curvy stretch of I-70 that has seen its share of accidents. The largest so far was in 1995, when 44 vehicles piled up on the curving eastbound bridge during a snow squall. No one died, but several people were seriously injured, including one man that jumped from the Interstate 70 bridge to avoid being hit by a careening vehicle. He landed on Highway 6 and was severely injured.

“Dowd Canyon has been in all the papers because of all the (traffic) accidents,” said Powers. “It’s supposedly substandard now, but it was built to standard.”

Powers said the entire hillside above I-70 from the Minturn exit to just east of Battle Mountain High School was formed by a series of ancient mudslides, said Resident Engineer Keith Powers of the Transportation Department. In 1983, a portion of the highway just west of the Minturn exit was carried away by a small mudslide after record winter snows saturated the ground with meltwater. By boring a tunnel through the hard rock of the cliffs along the northern side of the Eagle River at Dowd Junction, the curvy and accident-ridden stretch of highway can be realigned from its current location on a series of ancient mudslides to a more stable, safer route for drivers.

The crew at Dowd Junction is boring a small hole for up to a quarter of a mile into the rock on the northern side of I-70 about a mile west of West Vail, sampling its suitability for supporting a larger tunnel. The west end of the tunnel would exit the hillside near the River Run apartments.

Two months ago, drill crews used a helicopter to place a drilling rig on top of the Dowd Junction mudslide area to drill some core samples.

It won’t be cheap

Powers said the EIS will be comprehensive.

“It will look at Vail Pass climbing lanes, fixed guideway and light rail or other types of mass transit, shared-lane usage,” he said. “They’re all part of it.”

The highway department has studied transportation through the Interstate 70 corridor before, but it discovered a more comprehensive study was needed, said Brian Pinkerton, a department program engineer.

“Stakeholders felt we needed more detail in our study,” he said.

The solutions vary from managing traffic, adding passing lanes to mountain passes and using high-speed rail or buses. They will likely be implemented in the next 30 years, or possibly sooner, according to the transportation Department.

How and when some of the more expensive projects will be implemented will be determined by need, Powers said.

“These independent utility projects will stand on their own merit,” he said.

It also will address the degradation of water quality in Black Gore Canyon at Vail Pass created by 30 years of applying highway sand. That sand is eroding into and chocking Black Gore Creek. The cost of just keeping the water quality from degrading more is $20 million.

Money for the projects is now and will remain an issue, Pinkerton said. The department’s budget, along with those of nearly every other state agency, is being cut to reduce an $850 million state budget deficit.

“We think we can round up $1 billion over 20 years,” Pinkerton said. “If the projects come in on the high end, we have to acknowledge that the project will take longer or will require (funding) sources that don’t exist today.”

Pinkerton said the department will use a phased approach to doing some of the projects.

Possible highway projects in Eagle County:

– Dowd Canyon tunnel.

– Straightening curves at Wolcott and elsewhere.

– Climbing lanes on Vail Pass.

– Highway sand cleanup on Vail Pass.

– Improved on- and off-ramps at all intersections.

– Rail transportation project from the Eagle County Regional Airport to Minturn and/or Leadville.

– Additional exit at the Eagle County Regional Airport.

– Fixed-guideway rail from Denver International Airport to Vail.

– Adding additional lanes where needed.

– Widening access roads in Edwards and elsewhere and adding a roundabout. at U.S. Highway 6 in Edwards.

– Wildlife crossing points.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com

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