County endorses "half-diamond’
The interchange at Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6 in Eagle-Vail, east of Avon, is far from doomed, and Eagle-Vail residents will apparently have to come to grips with their fears of heavier traffic through their neighborhood.
Despite fierce opposition from dozens of residents who spoke at a public hearing Tuesday, Eagle County commissioners Mike Gallagher and Arn Menconi, both Democrats, endorsed the interchange the Colorado Department of Transportation wants to build where Interstate 70 passes over Highway 6.
“I’m looking at what is good for the county,” Gallagher said Tuesday afternoon. “(Highway 6) isn’t a neighborhood lane, it’s is a major highway that travels through the subdivisions. The engineers brought me to understand the necessity of the half-diamond.”
Menconi said he spent much of the last four days learning as much as he could about the half-diamond.
“The deeper I’ve looked into this and the more people I’ve questioned on this, considering that there is going to be growth, this will be something that will benefit us,” Menconi said. “I see this as a long-term system improvement that will benefit Eagle-Vail and Avon and Dowd Junction.”
Residents have long opposed the interchange but thought the project was unstoppable -until last week. That’s when Gallagher and fellow-County Commissioner Tom Stone, a Republican running for reelection in November, delivered residents’ letters opposing the half-diamond to CDOT chief Tom Norton. Norton then said he would kill the project if the county as a whole told him not to build it.
“People think we’re forcing it down their throats, but there are other places we can go,” Norton said at the time. “If people don’t want traffic problems solved, we’ll let them stack up in traffic and go another place where people want their traffic problems solved.”
Norton reportedly will make a final decision on the project today.
“I’m disappointed, but that’s why we have a board of three commissioners, so it’s not just one person weighing in,” Stone said. “I think at least the residents can feel like they’ve been heard.”
Stone said he would still tell the CDOT chief Eagle-Vail residents’ opinions of the project.
“Tom Norton was very interested in hearing from me on what the public had to say,” Stone said. “He’s looking at it in a long-range fashion, and he thinks it’s necessary and should be put in now when they’re ready to do it.”
Though CDOT, in the next few days, may begin looking for a contractor to build the half-diamond this summer, residents opposed to project are still not ready to throw in the towel, said Ralph Dockery, president of the Eagle-Vail Property Owners’ Association.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but I’m going to continue to lobby against it,” Dockery said. “They’ve told us this was a done deal before.”
Dockery said the residents’ opinions should hold as much weight as the vote of the commissioners.
“Norton said if the consensus of the public was against it, he would kill it, not a consensus of the commissioners,” Dockery said.
Dozens of Eagle-Vail residents spoke out against the half-diamond at Tuesday’s public hearing in the Eagle County Commission Chambers.
“I’ve been dealing with this project for a long time, and unlike good whiskey it hasn’t gotten any better with age,” Eagle-Vail resident Elliot Payson said.
The interchange is called a “half-diamond” because it will only have an eastbound off-ramp and a west-bound on-ramp. That means a driver that got on I-70 in Eagle-Vail could only travel east toward Vail.
The half-diamond was on the verge of being built last summer, but CDOT couldn’t find a contractor to build it cheaply enough and postponed the project.
One of the purposes of the half-diamond is to reduce traffic –and hopefully car accidents – at the sometimes-treacherous Dowd Junction interchange a few miles east, which CDOT engineer Ralph Trapani called a “hot spot.”
“Dowd Junction is in rough shape,” Trapani said Tuesday. “We’ve started to look at solutions for Dowd Junction but chances are they’re decades out.”
The most treacherous sections of Dowd Junction are on the eastbound on-ramp and at the bottom of the westbound off-ramp, where it meets Highway 6, CDOT engineer Keith Powers added.
Eagle-Vail Metropolitan District Board member J. Halburnt, however, said if Dowd Junction’s the problem then fix Dowd Junction.
“It’s not our fault CDOT built Dowd Junction poorly,” Halburnt said. “This opens up an artery that’s not there now, and if you cut yourself, you’ll bleed all over the place.”
What about Avon?
Though support for the half-diamond outside of CDOT has been rather silent, a few county residents spoke in favor the project Tuesday.
“This is not just a matter about Eagle-Vail residents,” said Linda Miller. “It doesn’t make sense to turn something down at today’s cost and wait 10 to 15 years for a Western slope T-REX project.”
Complicating the half-diamond, is the “full-diamond” interchange being built less than a mile west by the developer of the Village at Avon shopping and residential complex.
“What happens when you build both interchanges is they reduce, by a small amount, traffic at (the) Avon (interchange) and quite a bit of traffic at Dowd Junction,” Trapani said. “They’re both congested.”
Menconi said studies show that the half-diamond is even more necessary with the large Wal-Mart and The Home Depot stores being built at the Village at Avon.
“The engineering studies were done prior to the box stores and they increase the need for the half-diamond,” Menconi said.
He said about $1.7 million has been spent on designing the half-diamond and the widening, repaving and striping CDOT did on Highway 6 last summer to appease an angry Eagle-Vail Metropolitan District board that was threatening to sue the transportation agency over the interchange.
The strongest support for the half-diamond came from Town of Avon officials, who said severe traffic congestion could be disastrous for the valley.
“I just think it creates another option on what I consider to be the lifeblood of this town,” Avon Councilman Buz Reynolds said. “We only have two east-to-west corridors in this entire valley.”
Avon Assistant Town Manager Larry Brooks told commissioners Tuesday that traveling quickly around the county will become more and more difficult in the coming years.
“Mobility is going to be one of your greatest challenges,” Brooks said. “If you think it’s affordable housing, you’re mistaken, because that’s already on your radar screen.”
Dockery said his neighborhood shouldn’t have to suffer the side-effects of solving Avon’s traffic problems.
“Eagle-Vail is built-out. There is not going to be any more traffic or population generated from Eagle-Vail,” Dockery said.
In an informal survey done by the property owners’ association, 68 percent of Eagle-Vail residents were opposed to the interchange, said Tricia Lucero-Blaikie, a member of the property owners’ board.
Trapani said CDOT is planning to install traffic lights along Highway 6 as part of the half-diamond project. That should make it safer to cross the sometimes busy highway, he said.
“This project will address bike and pedestrian issues,” said Trapani, adding the he often commutes to work on his bike.
But Eagle-Vail residents, such as Betsy Foley, appeared convinced the half-diamond – with or without traffic lights – will ruin what they say is still a quiet neighborhood.
“I think the money could be spent fixing Dowd, putting in flashing lights like in Glenwood Canyon and slowing people down, instead of dumping traffic into Eagle-Vail,” Foley said.
Gallagher said he hadn’t made a decision when Tuesday’s public hearing began. He said engineers not only convinced him the project was important but that CDOT would make other improvements to Highway 6 to make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
“I came into it today with my eyes wide open, waiting to be educated and I was educated by the engineers to understand that it is a proper and necessary,” Gallagher said. “At the same time, I was educated by Eagle-Vail citizens as to their concerns.”
Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 606 or via e-mail at email@example.com.