Big storms test plans to keep highway moving | VailDaily.com

Big storms test plans to keep highway moving

Recent efforts to improve Interstate 70 traffic include a 13-mile toll lane through Clear Creek County, more manpower for the snowplows and accident response and weekly conference calls between state and local officials

EAGLE COUNTY — People in the public-safety business have had a tough year so far, proving again, as if we needed the reminder, that men plan, and God laughs.

A combination of wildly varying temperatures, a good bit of traffic and a whole lot of snow has complicated well-laid plans to help keep traffic moving on Interstate 70 between Vail and Denver. Still, those plans might be paying off.

Patrick Chavez is the Colorado Department of Transportation's mountain corridor operations manager for I-70 between Vail and Denver. He was hired in 2014 as part of the department's efforts to ensure the highway operates smoothly as often as possible.

That effort came together in 2013 after a "perfect storm" of massive snow, massive traffic and a good number of motorists driving on inadequate tires resulted in 10-hour drives from Vail to Denver for many people.

That effort includes a 13-mile toll lane through Clear Creek County, more manpower for the snowplows as well as accident response and weekly conference calls between state and local officials to talk about the coming weekend's traffic.

Chavez said it's working pretty well, for the most part.

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And then there are weeks like last week, when snow, avalanches and accidents caused multiple highway closures throughout the week. Some of those closures lasted for hours.

For the most part, there isn't much any agency can do about a natural avalanche. It's hard to react to warm daytime temperatures that drop quickly, coating the highway with ice.

Not bad, considering

"Considering the circumstances, I think it's going pretty well," I-70 Coalition Director Margaret Bowes said.

The Coalition is a group of governments and businesses along the corridor from Vail to Denver that works with state and federal agencies to "make sure we keep I-70 top of mind with legislators," Bowes said.

Speaking from her home office in Summit County, Bowes noted that department of transportation officials, as well as Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene, often use "unprecedented" to describe conditions seen in the first couple of weeks of 2017.

Bowes said part of the relative success this season has been due to "safety closures" along the corridor. Those closures, enacted when weather conditions quickly deteriorate, or in the first few moments after an accident, allow crews to get into trouble spots before longer backups occur.

There have been a lot of highway closures so far this winter — 114 as of Friday, by Chavez's count. About 45 percent of those closures have been relatively short — an hour or less.

Another 20 percent of the closures last from one to three hours.

Then there are the longer closures due to avalanches, multi-car pileups and the like.

To keep those road closures as short as possible, two incident commanders — one on each side of the tunnels — are on the road during storms and heavy-traffic days, ready to drive to accident scenes to coordinate responses.

That response often involves local fire, police and ambulance crews. In this part of the corridor, the Vail Police Department is often called in to help state officials close the interstate.

No magic 8-ball

Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said the communication between local and state agencies is vastly different than when he came to town 15 years ago.

"It's 180 degrees different," Henninger said. "We came up with better plans, and we've agreed to follow them."

Henninger wouldn't speculate whether the recent storm-related closures were better or worse because of the relatively new response plans. But, he said, "We're communicating with the public more effectively."

There's one thing that hasn't improved, though.

"Everybody wants to know when the highway will open," Henninger said, adding that's a question shared by officials. Of course, that's a tough question to answer.

"There are so many factors you have no control over, you just don't know," Henninger said.

One communication tool that has improved is the variable message signs along the highway. When the signs were first installed in the late 1990s, updates could be iffy, depending on cell service, and, sometimes, whether or not police called the right people after an accident scene was cleared.

These days, programming the signs can happen quickly, and the signs can be seen in real time online at the department of transportation's website, http://www.cotrip.org.

"Now you can just push a button and (the message) will be up from the Utah border to Denver," Henninger said. "It's been progressively improving."

But nature ultimately calls the shots, from highway closures to potholes. Those holes have sprouted in great numbers in the first half of this month. Transportation department spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said there isn't much to be done about them, since warmer temperatures are needed for effective patching. Trulove said crews will use a cold mix to make temporary patches for big holes.

But the patching crews also run the snowplows. And, so far this year, the snowplows have been running almost non-stop.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.

Good advice

With big crowds and more inclement weather expected over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, here are some tips from the Colorado Department of Transportation.

• If you’re involved in a crash, stay in your vehicle with your seat belt buckled. Call 911 and wait for police.

• If it’s snowing, or the roads are anything from damp to icy, slow down.

• Call 511 from anywhere in Colorado for current road conditions.

• Check the variable message signs along the highway for conditions, warnings and alerts.