Future of Highway 6 in spotlight
With folks continuing to move to the area in droves, major developments planned and no push to reduce the number of tourists, there are going to be more and more cars on the roads, officials and residents agree.
And to deal with this traffic, Eagle County has only two major east-west arteries –Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6.
The interstate –except for a few two-wheeling daredevils –is mostly for cars and big-rigs. But bicyclists, pedestrians, SUVs, trucks, sedans, buses and other conveyances are all crammed in trying to share Highway 6.
“It has to handle a wide-array of users, from motor vehicles to pedestrians,” says Brian Donaldson, who lives along the highway in Eagle-Vail. “So safety is of the utmost importance, and one of the issues that has to be dealt with in residential and recreation areas is the speed – some way to calm the traffic, slow it down.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation and Eagle County have embarked on an extensive analysis of what improvements need to be made to Highway 6 to accommodate future vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
“We have to get the community’s input on what we want Highway 6 to do,” says Helen Migchelbrink, Eagle County engineer. “Do we want a highway that gets us as quickly as it can from one place to another, or do we want a more residential road?”
But residents haven’t spoken up yet, Migchelbrink says.
“Highway 9 in Breckenridge was turned into a divided highway with landscaping and lowered speed limits,” she says. “If that’s what people want, that’s what we can do. We’ll continue to elicit public input, but we haven’t had a good response so far.”
Details of the study – and announcements of future public meetings where residents can give their suggestions for Highway 6 – can be found on the county’s Web site at http://www.eagle-county.com.
“Of major concern are the quality-of-life issues for people who live adjacent to the highway,” says Donaldson. “I’ve got an open invitation to just about every official in the county, and the state, to come over and join me on my deck and see how much noise we put up with from the highway.”
Migchelbrink says the Highway 6 study, which will also look at other modes of transportation, such as light rail, could be wrapped up and presented to the state for funding by the end of the year.
“We need to develop a plan so we can get it into the cue in the state for funding,” she says. “We want to look at all the options, so that in the next 20 years we end up with something we all want.”
A specter that continues to loom over Highway 6 is a possible expansion of the road to four lanes throughout the county.
“Traffic numbers predict we’ll have to widen it, but we’re not sure we want to do that,” says Keith Powers, resident engineer for CDOT.
One obstacle to widening the road is that CDOT would probably have to condemn private property throughout Eagle-Vail, Powers says.
“We only have so much right of way, so it has to be balanced out,” he says. “We’re trying to stay out of folks’ backyards.”
Some residents in Eagle-Vail are angry about the “half-diamond’ interchange due for construction where I-70 passes over Highway 6 in their subdivision.
But both state and county traffic engineers estimate traffic will jump 35 percent in Eagle-Vail with or without the interchange.
Thus, the Highway 6 study may be Eagle-Vail’s best chance to influence the future of traffic in their neighborhood.
“Through the half-diamond, I’ve come to understand that the bigger issue is the Highway 6 corridor study,” says Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi.
Bruce Mielke, an Eagle-Vail resident who has been heavily involved in county transportation issues, said energy wasted on the half-diamond should be spent sprucing up Highway 6.
“Eagle-Vail would have been better off had they gone in and focused on mitigation,” Mielke says. “The half-diamond is a done deal, and now the question is what are we going to get?”
Already planned for Highway 6 is a stoplight at Stone Creek Drive. In the future, Mielke says, Highway 6 could look something like East Colfax Avenue in Denver.
“This is where Eagle-Vail really has an opportunity to get involved,” he says. “We could ultimately have medians, turning protections, lighting, landscaping. Some things to give it a more residential feel.”
In their battle against the half-diamond, Eagle-Vail residents have asked CDOT to lower the speed limit on Highway 6. Powers said the department will study speeds, but not until the half diamond is open and a series of traffic lights are installed along the highway in Eagle-Vail.
CDOT will also wait for the developer of the Village at Avon to finish its “full-diamond” I-70 interchange, as well as roundabout on Highway 6 to replace the intersection at Nottingham Ranch Road.
Folks in Eagle-Vail are convinced a prettier road will be a slower road, Donaldson said. In other words, people driving down an extensively landscaped road will feel like they’re driving through a neighborhood rather than down a California-style crosstown expressway.
“If we did some aesthetic improvements along the highway, will it have a traffic-calming effect?” Donaldson asks. “We think maybe it will, but not until traffic is slowed down with a posted speed limit and enforcement.”
Mielke says future Highway 6 commuters might begin using I-70 to cross the valley.
“That roundabout will do a lot to slow down traffic, as will the future stoplight,” he says. “You’re going to start reducing those speeds and people in the valley who are using Highway 6 to commute from Edwards to Vail, it’s going to force them onto I-70. They’re not going to like the commute on Highway 6.”
Edgy in Edwards
Perhaps even more than Eagle-Vail, the unincorporated community of Edwards is “ground zero for Highway 6,” says Mielke, who is also the administrator for Cordillera’s metro districts and drives Highway 6 almost everyday.
“The intersection at the (Edwards) stoplight, it’s like a nightmare revisited every day you drive through there,” Mielke says. “The intersection is absolutely critical.”
A massive development, meanwhile, at the Berry Creek 5th parcel along the Edwards Spur Road should pour a lot more traffic into a tight space, Mielke says.
“Eagle County has a number of obligations to the Edwards community,” Mielke says. “I’m talking about Lake Creek, Berry Creek, Singletree, Homestead. Eagle County cannot walk away from this and they can’t lay the blame on CDOT because there are insufficient funds to upgrade the Edwards spur road.”
The county’s time would have been better spent dealing with Edwards – the largest population center in Eagle County – than the recent furor over the half-diamond in Eagle-Vail, Mielke said.
“Edwards has grown and it has created some of its own problems, but I believe the county has exacerbated some problems by allowing the Berry Creek 5th to go forward without a plan in place,” he says. “Nobody has any good plans for the Edwards area and that’s terrible.”
Menconi, meanwhile, says he’s concerned about the lack of crosswalks at the main Edwards intersection, Menconi said.
“People can’t cross the intersection to get from one commercial area to another,” Menconi says. “That’s something I’m trying to get immediate attention to.”
A vicious cycle
One of Menconi’s priorities has been making room on Highway 6 for bicyclists, he says.
“I’ve been working on bike lanes since I got on the commission, and it’s not an easy one to tackle,” Menconi says. “But we can build a Highway 6 corridor that allows for cyclists, along with the trails.”
Menconi says one of the tightest stretches is on the western edge of Edwards.
“I ride 1,000 miles-a-summer on Highway 6, and from a cyclist’s perspective, we all believe the main issue of concern for safety is between the trailer park and St. Francis of Assissi,” he says.
CDOT’s Powers says the department has already started widening the highway through that tight stretch. CDOT will also install new “share the road” signs to alert drivers to the potential presence of cyclists on the highway, he says.
Menconi says safety should be a principle focus of the Highway 6 study.
“From Dowd Junction to Eagle, where are the concerns?” he says. “I would list them as the shoulder area in Edwards, the intersection in Edwards and the corridor feasibility study that addresses the safety issues for the whole Highway 6 area.”
Migchelbrink sees in simple terms, saysing Highway 6 is such a vital road because Eagle County doesn’t have many others.
“We have only two east-west routes in this county,” she says. “We don’t have a whole network of county roads that can supplant Highway 6.”
Powers says if residents provide it, CDOT will take their direction on the future of Highway 6.
“We’re hoping they participate because we don’t want to be the drivers in this, we want to make this right,” Powers says. “We want it to be safe and we want to get people from point A to point B, and the question is how fast?”
What to do about Dowd?
Dowd Junction is perhaps the Vail Valley’s most infamous tangle of road.
Just about everyone, including engineers with the Colorado Department of Transportation, agree the crash-prone Minturn Interstate 70 interchange and overpass needs to be repaired – or even replaced.
One idea is to bore a tunnel through the mountain.
“We’re between a rock and a wet place,” says CDOT resident engineer Keith Powers. “It’s a very tightly constrained corridor. We have two rockslide areas, the river and a primary wildlife crossing to deal with.”
CDOT, in fact, is in the middle of a major, multi-year study of traffic on the mountain stretch of I-70 from Denver to Glenwood Springs. The central purpose of this “corridor” study is to find out the best, least-congested ways for people to travel through the mountains in the coming decades.
The study analyzes highway expansion and improvements as well as alternative methods of transportation, such as monorails and commuter trains.
That study will also take a close look at Dowd Junction, Powers says.
“When it was built, it was built to the best standards of the time,” he says. “We’re looking at several different alignments, even cutting the corner with a tunnel –but none of these are cheap.”
CDOT could also widen the “platform” of I-70 in Dowd Junction.
“We could put in a six-lane highway, with three lanes in each direction, or two lanes plus room for multipurpose lanes for buses or a train,” Powers says. “Or two lanes plus some sort of rail line, whether it’s a monorail or light rail.”
CDOT is also looking out how to fit a light rail or monorail line into Dowd Junction to connect Minturn and Eagle-Vail to Vail and points east.
Earning Dowd Junction its notoriety are the frequent crashes – often involved a jackknifed big rig or two – occurring on its tight curves –especially in the winter.
“People come around the corner and hit the icy bridge, which also happens to be where everybody’s merging,” Powers says. “Anybody that’s driven that road knows it’s also tough to make a left onto Highway 6 and have good sight.”
The two hotspots in Dowd Junction are where drivers merge from the curled on-ramp into the eastbound lanes and the intersection of the westbound off-ramp with Highway 6, Powers said.
On March 8, for example, a series of pileups in Dowd Junction and in West Vail shut I-70 completely for several hours when a sudden snowstorm froze the road and several drivers lost control.
A “half-diamond” interchange in Eagle-Vail, to be built this summer, should relieve some traffic at Dowd Junction’s on and off ramps, says former CDOT engineer Ralph Trapani, who worked extensively in Eagle County before leaving the agency earlier this month.
The half-diamond will have an westbound on-ramp and an eastbound off-ramp that drivers can use to avoid having to get on and off I-70 in Dowd Junction.
“The Dowd interchange is seriously substandard,” Trapani says. “(But) I don’t want people to think the half-diamond is the long-term solution to Dowd Junction.”
The half-diamond should reduce accidents because less drivers will be getting on I-70 at Dowd Junction, meaning less drivers will be merging onto the interstate in Dowd’s tight corners, Trapani said.
“People coming out of Eagle-Vail and Avon will use the half-diamond,” he says.
But whatever CDOT does at Dowd Junction it won’t be cheap and it won’t happen this year, Trapani says.
“It’s my opinion that the Dowd interchange will come out of the corridor study as a priority,” Trapani says. “But it will probably be very expensive and it could be 10 years away.”
Powers, meanwhile, says he’s looking forward to the challenge of repairing Dowd Junction.
“It’s not often as engineer that you get all the tough stuff in one place,” he says.
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.