Colorado officials aim to study letting hazmat trucks through Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnels
For the average driver, braving the twists and turns along Loveland Pass can offer breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountain landscape, or white knuckles for anyone caught atop the pass in winter weather.
But for truckers carrying hazardous materials, weighed down with potentially thousands of gallons of highly toxic or combustible substances, the stakes are considerably higher.
Currently, trucks carrying hazardous materials across the Continental Divide aren’t allowed to travel through the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels on Interstate 70, except during certain periods with Colorado Department of Transportation escorts. Instead, the trucks are routed up Highway 6 through the often-treacherous pass to Summit County and beyond. But a new bill recently passed by the state Senate may help to change that.
In January, state Sen. Ray Scott and Rep. Julie McCluskie introduced a new bill to the Colorado Senate that would task the CDOT with studying the feasibility of allowing the transportation of hazardous materials through the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels in an effort to increase safety for both truck drivers and the neighboring communities.
“I think what’s most important on this bill, and why I wanted to carry it, is the safety of our residents in Summit and the truckers driving through Loveland Pass deserves our greatest attention, and we want to make sure we’re taking care of our transportation routes and the people closest to those,” said McCluskie.
If passed, CDOT would be asked to complete a study including findings and recommendations on whether the transportation of hazardous materials through the tunnel should be allowed, and under what conditions. The study would look at both the impacts of potential hazmat accidents on I-70 and Loveland Pass — including environmental and life safety concerns in areas around the pass like Keystone Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area — along with potential improvements to make I-70 a safe option for hazmat transport.
Additionally, the study would analyze the risk levels of allowing hazmat transportation through the tunnel at all times versus on a limited basis, and dissect questions surrounding whether some materials would be subject to different restrictions than others.
As part of the study, CDOT would also be required to gather input from a number of different stakeholders in the area, including Summit County, Dillon, Silverthorne, Summit Fire & EMS, Keystone Resort, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and a number of others outside of the county.
“It will be an interesting dialogue to talk about all of these issues, and come up with something safe and economical for all,” said Scott.
This isn’t the first time the issue has been raised. In 2016, CDOT completed the installation of a new $25 million fire suppression system in the tunnel, which some thought would open the door to rerouting hazmat trucks off of Loveland Pass. But officials say that the current system isn’t nearly robust enough to handle a major hazmat incident.
“It’s not designed for a big hazmat fire,” said Steve Lipsher, a spokesman with Summit Fire & EMS. “Our concerns are, for instance, a large fuel tanker fire inside the tunnel. Our understanding is an incident like that, on top of life safety concerns, could shut the tunnel down for years to rebuild. We need to make sure that the tunnel has adequate safety systems, and a sufficient fire suppression system in it to preserve human life and protect the tunnel from damage.”
McCluskie said that part of the study would look into what types of suppression systems would be necessary in the tunnel and if they’re feasible.
Lipsher noted that the fire department is on board with the change if it can be done safely, though it’s a big “if.”
A HAZARDOUS HIGHWAY
While the dangers of driving on Loveland Pass are evident, Lipsher noted that high volumes of traffic, especially in the winter, can also add to the complexity of driving along I-70.
But for the truckers who make the trip often, I-70 is a clear improvement over Loveland Pass.
“Loveland Pass is viewed as one of the most hazardous roadways in the country, particularly in winter for truckers,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, who voiced strong support for the study. “Between 100 mph winds, ice- and snow-covered roadways and limited shoulders, the road is extremely difficult to navigate … We’ve had drivers die or get injuries, and we owe it to our drivers and their families to see if we can end up having a safer manner for them to get through the pass.”
The bill passed unanimously on third reading in the state Senate late last month and is scheduled for a hearing in front of the House Transportation and Local Government Committee on Feb. 26. If passed, CDOT will have until December 2020 to complete the study.
“Truckers have expressed concerns for their safety,” said McCluskie. “Having a study that addresses their concerns with the highway and geography could go a long way. If they’re coming through the tunnel we want to make sure we’re aware of what the impacts could be if there was an accident and how best to mitigate negative impacts. Raising public safety is our top priority.”
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