Both ends of Eagle County have serious pinch points on I-70
How should our transportation systems evolve in a changing world?
It’s been nearly 30 years since Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon was completed. The world has changed a lot since then, and some locals think it’s time our transportation system changes, too.
The latest lengthy canyon closure, which began July 29, closed the highway between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs for more than two weeks. During that closure, commercial vehicles drove countless thousands of miles out of their way, snarling traffic on state and federal highways never meant to handle interstate levels of traffic.
Any number of private vehicles and a number of commercial vehicles got lost or stranded seeking detours.
The topic of I-70 came up during an Aug. 17 meeting between the Vail Town Council and the Eagle County Board of Commissioners.
At that meeting, council member Kim Langmaid said pouring money into I-70 through the canyon isn’t a long-term answer to keeping the highway open, adding she’d like to see the canyon return to a more scenic place.
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In a subsequent phone interview, Langmaid said transportation needs to change.
Changing our thinking
“The way we are getting products is changing rapidly,” Langmaid said. “We need to look into the future about how to accommodate that.”
Langmaid grew up in Vail, and took many trips through the canyon in its pre-interstate days for high school activities and family trips. The canyon remains “the same geologic wonder it was.” Allowing more people to see those wonders should be at the forefront of thinking about the highway’s future.
Doing that will require a broad change in thinking. That doesn’t mean just building a paved detour over Cottonwood Pass out of Gypsum, she added.
Instead, moving people and goods could take advantage of the state’s rail network.
“Imagine if people had a reliable commuter train through the canyon,” Langmaid said, adding that a large rail depot in Grand Junction could facilitate moving people and goods across western Colorado.
That won’t be easy. Railroads are well known for not working well with local communities. Part of that is due to a legal framework that dates to the 19th century, when the U.S. was still settling the West.
While federal legislation would be needed to make rail lines more accessible, “We got an act of Congress for Minturn,” Eagle County Commissioner and former Minturn Mayor Matt Scherr said.
Dowd’s tricky, too
At the other end of the valley, a committee has started meeting to talk about possible solutions for I-70 through Dowd Junction.
Longtime Vail resident Dick Cleveland is a member of that committee, as well as a member of a citizen group looking at a highway expansion project over Vail Pass.
Cleveland said that a tunnel to bypass the current highway alignment will be part of the committee’s conversations. A report on that work is expected in 2022.
Cleveland noted that the highway through Dowd Junction has one of the highest accident rates in the state. “Our goal is to solve that problem,” Cleveland said.
Like Glenwood Canyon, Dowd Junction is a critical pinch point for I-70. Most of Vail’s workforce uses the highway to get to jobs. Closures there are generally measured in minutes or hours, not days or weeks as they are in Glenwood Canyon. But a police officer or nurse who can’t get to work on time can create bigger problems.
Cleveland said a plan for the future will give decision-makers something to talk about. And a tunnel may not be as far-fetched as it was just a few years ago.
Referring to the Central 70 project in Denver, which is burying a portion of the highway, Cleveland noted that the idea would probably have been dismissed 20 years ago.
If Dowd Junction gets a tunnel at some point in the not-too-distant future, Cleveland said it’s possible that conversations will again turn to burying the interstate through at least a portion of Vail.
“I suspect it’s going to come up again,” Cleveland said. “People are going to see it’s possible.” The big question will be funding.
Talking about the future is the way to get there. For now, though, transportation across the Western Slope will continue to have its pinch points, whether due to nature or human error.
A treacherous lifeline
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll grew up in Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. He clearly remembers the massive construction project that created I-70 in Glenwood Canyon.
The interstate is a “lifeline” for interstate commerce, Shroll said. The difficulty, particularly compared to Interstate 80 through Wyoming or Interstate 40 through New Mexico, is that Colorado has “the worst weather and the worst (mountain) passes,” Shroll said.
The Glenwood Canyon stretch of I-70 will be 30 years old in 2022.
“We got a great 30 years out of it,” Shroll said. But today is a different story. Shroll noted he’s been told by U.S. Forest Service officials that what’s fallen to the canyon floor from the Grizzly Creek fire burn scar is “a fraction” of what might eventually fall.
“That really does change some things,” Shroll said. Shipping more cargo by rail may be part of the answer, he added. But businesses in the Eagle River and Roaring Fork valleys still require their deliveries.
And, Shroll added, the Cottonwood Pass road, under the best-case scenario, is unlikely to be a suitable canyon detour. Even that will cost millions, he noted.
Frequent canyon closures also create a ripple effect for people, from jobs, to housing to child care, Shroll added.
“Ultimately, it’s a reminder that we’re not in charge,” Shroll said.
Interstate 70 over Vail Pass was completed in 1978.
The Glenwood Canyon I-70 project began in 1980, and was completed in 1992.
The canyon was completed a year ahead of schedule, at a cost of $490 million.
Cottonwood Pass between Gypsum and Glenwood Springs will close this winter to through traffic.