Future project may ease westbound I-70 congestion
On the road between Idaho Springs and the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnel, Crested Butte has several billboards that take a not-so-subtle jab at the region’s ski areas.
“A refreshing toll-free drive, take Highway 285” they read, featuring the Interstate 70 logo with a red slash through it.
That message, designed to lure away skiers stuck in I-70 gridlock, reflects the strain placed on the mostly two-lane highway by a booming population in the country’s second-fastest growing state.
Last spring, the Colorado Department of Transportation completed work on improvements to the eastbound stretch of I-70 between the tunnel and Front Range. According to a third-party analytics firm, those improvements decreased travel times by as much as 20 to 50 percent during peak hours.
Now, the department hopes to replicate that success on the westbound lanes by adding overflow lanes to loosen the bottlenecks that routinely develop as throngs of skiers and outdoor enthusiasts make their way to the high country.
According to estimates, westbound travel from C-470 to Silverthorne during peak hours can take nearly three hours, compared with only 55 minutes under normal conditions. Average speeds on the weekend can be as low as 18 mph.
“You’ve seen major improvements in Summit County,” said Joe Mahoney, who works in the Colorado Department of Transportation Office of Major Project Development. “The (eastbound) peak used to be around 2 or 3 (p.m.), and now it’s 4 or 5 (p.m.). That means people can take more runs or have a bite to eat in town, which is good for sales revenues.”
Mahoney noted that two years ago, peak traffic times saw 3,200 vehicles per hour crawling along at speeds of 5 to 10 mph.
Since last year’s improvements, he said, average speeds are now 35 to 40 mph despite around 1,000 more vehicles passing through each hour.
That improvement was achieved primarily through the construction of express lanes, which remain closed throughout most of the week but open up as a third lane during peak hours.
“Before, if you had a tractor-trailer slowly winding down on a snowy night, that was essentially a one-lane interstate,” Mahoney said.
I-70 Mountain Corridor Project
Mahoney was one of nearly a dozen state officials on hand for a March 14 public meeting in Idaho Springs to discuss the I-70 Mountain Corridor project.
The gathering was intended as a way for local residents to express their concerns about the project. There were many, and attendees peppered a large map of the corridor with sticky notes marking areas of concern.
A big-ticket item for many people was an overhaul of the Empire Junction interchange to U.S. Highway 40, which features a very sharp curve that many described as a growing safety hazard.
Several people were somewhat leery of the project, which would entail extensive construction work through the communities of Clear Creek County primarily for the benefit of Summit and Eagle counties.
“Summit County has a vested interest in this project, and I would like to encourage our neighbors in the next county over to support us on this,” one Clear Creek resident said during the public comment period of the meeting.
The benefits of clearing congestion along the corridor are clear, at least as far as resort-area businesses and ski areas are concerned, officials said.
“The congestion starts every Friday morning, and it’s a drag on the local economy, it affects tourism and it affects safety: The number of crashes is higher when there is congestion,” said Jonathan Bartsch, CEO of CDR Associates, a consulting firm that ran the meeting.
State officials are still working on a specific plan for the project, although it will be modeled off the eastbound improvements. The cost for those ultimately came in at around $300 million, and the agency expects the cost on this new project to be in that same ballpark.
The agency hopes to begin an environmental impact study this summer, and construction could start in about three years.
For Front Range visitors, the improvements couldn’t come a moment too soon.
“The more congested it becomes, people aren’t going to start leaving their houses at 4 a.m.,” Mahoney said. “There’s a point where enough is enough, and I think we’re reaching that point.”