Can new strategies ease Interstate 70 woes?
More snow coming
The Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service has issued a Winter Storm Warning through midnight Nov. 15.
The forecast calls for possibly heavy snow, with accumulations in spots of up to 12 inches of snow in the area including Eagle County, with up to 18 inches possible on some west-facing peaks.
Oh, and Vail Mountain opens for the season Nov. 20.
EAGLE COUNTY — New plans for Interstate 70 weekend traffic this winter started taking shape the morning of Feb. 10. That was the day after the worst weather-and-traffic day anyone could remember.
That Sunday, Feb. 9, day skiers by the thousands poured into the high country from the Front Range, lured by a couple of massive recent snowstorms. Then, as those thousands of powder-seekers started to head home, another big storm hit. The usual hours-long trek stretched far into the evening. Accidents abounded. Some Denver-area residents reported their trip home took as long as 10 hours.
While Feb. 9 may have been a perfect storm in many ways, it raised alarms from Vail to Denver. Town, industry and state officials all said many more Sundays like Feb. 9 would ultimately keep people — and their money — away from the state’s most popular ski resorts.
The problem, though, is that there’s no such thing as a quick fix for the state’s main east-west highway. Adding more lanes is expensive and, in many areas, controversial. A state study has found that a high-speed rail system into the heart of the corridor is technically feasible, but financially impossible for the foreseeable future.
So the Colorado Department of Transportation, along with the Colorado State Patrol, and with input from communities along the corridor, started working on as many small, partial solutions as possible.
The result of that work was unveiled this week in Denver.
In an interview before that meeting, Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said the new plans throw everything “and the kitchen sink” into trying to make the corridor work better.
Those solutions start with a couple of new positions in the department. One, a director of transportation systems operations, is charged with examining how the state uses its roads now, and how those roads can be used better.
Another new position is a corridor manager. The department of transportation breaks up the state into several districts, and I-70 from Vail to Denver is in two of them. Ford said the corridor manager’s job is to coordinate snowplowing and other jobs between those districts to ensure the right number of people are being used during storms.
More Snow Plows
There will be more people running more plows this winter, too. Ford said the department has moved several plows and operators into the corridor to keep the highway as clear as possible.
Those new plow drivers will also be used to manage traffic on weekends. Ford said the state is installing traffic-monitoring equipment at on-ramps in Summit County. During a big storm, drivers will be let onto the highway in waves, following plows up the steep grade leading to the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnels.
When accidents do take place, the state also has an incident commander ready to direct responses, from courtesy patrol cars to help motorists to heavy tow-truck operators stationed in spots to un-jacknife big trucks.
Check Your Tires
Motorists need to do their part, too. In an evaluation of the number of cars unable to get re-started, transportation officials reported that many of the stranded motorists had inadequate tires.
That’s led to efforts to help people understand how much rubber they need to travel safely over snowy mountain passes.
“We use a quarter — if any part of George Washington’s head is covered (by tire tread), you’re good,” Ford said.
The Vail Police Department has joined the tire-checking efforts. Officers were at the West Vail Safeway Nov. 8, and will check the tires of anyone who asks and comes by the police station. Drivers can get discount coupons for new tires during those checks. The coupons are worth up to 10 percent off a set of tires at some local dealers. That’s not a lot, but given the cost of new snow tires, every little bit helps.
Vail Police Sgt. Chris Botkins said so far “a few people” have taken advantage of the tread checks and coupons.
“People know if their tires are worn out,” he said.
Change Your Peak Time
Besides having the right gear, the state and the nonprofit I-70 coalition are continuing last season’s Change Your Peak Time campaign, which encourages drivers to linger in the resorts for a few hours to spread out the traffic load on the highway.
The state this winter is also rolling out bus service to the high country, and is working with the Denver Regional Council of Governments to make vans used in that group’s weekday van-pooling program available to people driving to the mountains.
It’s still early in the winter, of course, and Monday’s storm brought interstate traffic to a halt for several hours.
Vail is at the west end of the road-closure zone. Botkins said despite the slide-offs and other incidents, he’s encouraged by what he’s seen of this winter’s plan so far.
“There were some growing pains (Monday), but we’re starting to get on the same page,” Botkins said.
But to see if there’s enough in place to head off a replay of Feb. 9, we’re going to need another massive mid-winter storm.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com and @scottnmiller.