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Choice of tunnels

Jim Lamont

The following is the fourth installment of the Vail Village Homeowners Association white paper: “Eliminating I-70, a Grand Vision Plan for Vail.” The full report can be obtained on the association’s Web site http://www.vailhomeowners.comTunneling Considerations: In preliminary studies, the concept for a bypass tunnel under Vail Mountain appears to be a more efficient construction option than the “cut & cover” method, according to initial investigations. This conclusion is reached because tunnel construction is the least disruptive to the community and surrounding region. However, it has the greatest financial risk because of a higher probability of encountering cost inflating unpredictable geologic conditions during construction.Already considered in the state Transportation Department’s environmental impact study is a short tunnel that would bypass the Dowd Junction Interchange. The $300 million tunnel project is being proposed as a bypass diverting the interstate around a large landslide area at the Dowd Junction interchange.The Vail Mountain bypass tunnel can be built without interrupting the operation of the interstate. Tunnel muck could be removed directly from the construction site by railroad, eliminating any need to compound highway traffic throughout the surrounding area. Once the tunnel is opened to traffic, the existing 1-70 right-of-way can be abandoned and its redevelopment begun. The development of the abandoned right-of-way can proceed in stages. The disruption to the community to redevelop the abandoned right-of-way will be less than the “cut & cover” method, because the complexity of construction will be substantially reduced. A prospective disadvantage is the lag time for developers to see a return on their investment. They would be required to pay up front for the cost of the tunnel construction. A funding mechanism may be necessary whereby third-party financing could carry the cost of tunnel construction until private development begins to generate revenues to cover debt repayment, operational, and maintenance costs. The preliminary rough cost of construction, $2.4 billion, is less predictable for tunnels, which will further complicate project financing. The financing mechanisms needed to provide the significant up-front funds, burdened by a long-range payback, will need to be unique and the investment is not without risks. Importantly, the bypass benefits the entire community equitably because all transcontinental traffic would be diverted around the community. It is doubtful that any proposal that fails to benefit the entire community to the same degree would be favorably supported.The I-70 bypass tunnel will give Vail the greatest control to shape its own destiny. There are many new and varied possibilities to be envisioned and included in a long-range plan. Once the plan is conceived, progress need not wait on the completion of the bypass. Decisions can begin immediately, leading to the development of critical supporting elements – e.g., water supplies – that are a prerequisite to the plan’s ultimate success. Destination traffic would access Vail by two new interchanges located at the east and west portals of the tunnel. One would be located on Vail Pass and the other west of Vail, situated north of the Eagle River near Eagle-Vail. I-70 through Vail would be replaced with a four-lane central boulevard with roundabouts at strategic intersections. Portions of the existing South and North Frontage Roads can be linked, becoming the central boulevard. The long-planned Simba Run underpass in one of its configuration (estimated $15 million) could establish the central boulevard from Ford Park to the West Vail shopping complex, now being planned as the community town center. The creation of the major arterial is taking place now and will emerge over time in conjunction with private redevelopment. Elements are already programmed for construction as part of the redevelopment of the resort town center – Vail Village and Lionshead. Failure of the conference center vote, however, delayed one-third of the initial work. When completed, the central boulevard will directly link the resort and community town centers. The “cut & cover” method is more costly, $3.5 billion, because it must be staged so the interstate and frontage roads remain open to traffic. Construction will be disruptive both for the interstate and the community. One advantage of the “cut & cover” concept is that it can be built in stages, over a longer period of time. Staging allows a more immediate return on investment for a developer and there is the possibility of multiple developers. However, security and environmental issues will remain once the project is completed. These issues will affect what can be built over the interstate, potentially negatively limiting return of investment and developer interest. There will be areas where covering the interstate cannot be justified. There may be “noise leakage” into the community because of requirements for ventilation and related factors. Accordingly, there may be areas of the community that do not benefit because the benefit to property values is less than the cost of the construction or the length of time to bring the project to completion is too long, thereby creating a fatal political flaw for the proposal.Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association, was the town of Vail’s first director of community development (1972-77). He is a professional town planner and has been involved in most aspects of Vail’s development during his career. Vail, Colorado


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