Vail Pass interstate work has started first phase
Initial phase will cost $140 million, be finished in 2025
The west side of the Vail Pass stretch of Interstate 70 has needed work, and a lot of it, for some time. That work, although not fully funded, began this month.
The first part of the work will focus on rebuilding the lower of the two runaway truck ramps off the westbound lanes and installing a highway closure gate at the top of the pass.
Work begins in earnest next year on more than $140 million worth of projects. Work on the eastbound lanes will be between mile markers 185 and 190, at the top of the pass.
Colorado Department of Transportation project engineer Karen Berdoulay said work on the eastbound lanes will include a third traffic lane. Initial work will start at about mile marker 184, known locally as “the narrows.”
Work on the westbound lanes will start at the top of the pass, then head downhill. That work also includes a third lane.
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This part of the project is funded at roughly $140 million, thanks to a $60 million federal grant that was awarded in 2020. Berdoulay said the state agency was able to match that grant with state and federal funds.
The size of this part of the project is “pretty exciting,” Berdoulay said.
Just the start
But even that much funding only goes so far on a complicated, long stretch of interstate that includes a number of bridge replacement projects. The most recent estimate for the entire project is more than $700 million. That’s why current planning breaks down the entire project into quadrants, to be addressed as funding permits.
The Vail Pass project is also slated to receive another $50 million, plus funding from the state’s bridge-replacement fund.
While the latest federal infrastructure bill has billions allocated for highway work, Berdoulay said the transportation department’s 2020 10-year plan doesn’t include the prospect of funding from that source.
“Leadership has said when we get (federal funds), we’ll go to the 10-year list,” Berdoulay said.
For now, transportation officials are trying to be as strategic as possible with where money is spent, and on which projects.
The current part of the project — expected to be finished in 2025 — went to the top of the to-do list because officials believe they can have an immediate impact on safety working on these stretches.
One of the biggest problems on Vail Pass, particularly on the westbound side, is the often-dramatic difference in speeds between vehicles. A third lane, combined with creating more gentle curves, could have a “dramatic” effect on the number of crashes on that part of the highway.
Speed differentials on the eastbound side can also be significant. But, Berdoulay said that among the biggest issues on that side is keeping the road open as emergency responders work accident scenes.
Safety for motorists, responders
Automated closure gates at the top and bottom of the pass will stop traffic during an accident. Motorists already near the scene of an accident will have more of a chance to pull over safely.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak’s firefighters are among those first responders. Novak said that accident response teams use a “plus-one” approach to accidents on the pass. That means both lanes of the highway will close to clear an accident scene. In the case of serious accidents, particularly those in which someone dies, the cleanup and investigation can take hours.
Novak said a third lane can help speed response times to accident scenes.
With both lanes blocked, it can be hard for fire trucks and ambulances to get to an accident scene, with emergency vehicles often driving on the shoulder of the road, Novak added.
On the westbound side, blocking traffic can also result in more accidents uphill from the first scene.
The current work on the lower runaway truck ramp will also be helpful, Novak said. A few weeks ago, a tractor-trailer rig had to use that ramp. Since it curves, the driver wasn’t able to stay on the ramp, and the truck ended up in the trees. That required crews to essentially rappel down to the vehicle.
Novak noted that road construction is always a bother. In this case, though, “it’s a win,” he said.
To learn more about the Vail Pass project, go to the project website.