Groundbreaking celebrates new I-70 lane expansion, wildlife crossings on Vail Pass
Dangerous section of roadway will receive another lane, six new underpasses
Representatives from the Colorado Department of Transportation on Wednesday celebrated the groundbreaking of the I-70 West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes Project.
The project represents the first phase of improvements identified for Vail Pass that are aimed at continuing the highway’s legacy as an environmentally sensitive effort to move millions of people over a 10,000-foot mountain pass and through a major wildlife migration corridor.
The $140.4 million project began when CDOT received a $60.7 million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant, matched with additional funding, to start design and construction.
Shoshana Lew with CDOT reminisced Wednesday about the time she first learned of the ideas to improve Vail Pass. Lew has been CDOT’s executive director since 2018.
“They came with their idea and I think I said something like ‘there is no funding for this, if you could figure out a piece that could be done, and itemize it into pieces where we could talk about doing it piece by piece, then we can talk,” Lew said. “Six months passes, I hadn’t thought about the conversation in some time, the team comes back, and they have this incredible breakdown of how you could do the smaller version of it. We all took one look at it and said we’re applying for a grant for this thing, because it’s going to win.”
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Lew said the $60.7 million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant, which CDOT learned it would be receiving in 2020, is one of the largest competitive grants that the department has received for a project.
“The reason (CDOT received the grant), I think, is because the team did such a good job being pragmatic about how you could take the critical pieces of this project and show the impact in a way that was specific, itemized, just very practical,” Lew said.
Captain Jared Rapp with Colorado State Patrol said the additional lane will improve safety for first responders.
“Whenever there’s a crash, the best practice is taking one lane plus a 12-foot buffer to ensure those people that showed up on scene will go home safely at the end of the day, and as well it provides that sense of security for those travelers that are on the roadways,” Rapp said. “In a four-year period, there were 644 partial closures that contributed to 1,500 hours.”
The additional lane will make those closures quicker, safer, and less costly, Rapp said.
Environmentally sensitive area
Lew said cameras are currently monitoring wildlife in the area, as documenting wildlife prior to the installation of wildlife underpasses will help researchers determine how well the underpasses are working once they’re implemented.
Four smaller underpasses and two large underpasses will be added to the Vail Pass area, part of an effort to help biodiversity by allowing more opportunity for migration. The Vail Pass area is a historic migration corridor for a variety of wildlife; the cameras currently capturing wildlife activity on Vail Pass have documented coyote, fox, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, marmot, squirrels and chipmunks, said CDOT civil engineer John Kronholm.
“We’ll probabaly leave the cameras up in the winter and see what we get, as well,” Kronholm said.
Town of Vail Public Works Director Greg Hall said he studied Vail Pass in graduate school as an example of an environmentally sensitive project.
“Vail Pass was the first interstate that had to go under the (National Environmental Policy Act),” Hall said. “The result of that act and the initial collaboration with stakeholders — versus we’re just gonna build a highway — is the result here. There’s a lot of ownership in this corridor, and I think that has taken in future projects.”
The Vail Pass project became a guiding light for other projects, Hall said.
“Vail Pass and Glenwood Canyon were always put out as strong, strong examples of the right way to do projects,” Hall said.
Kiewit Construction, the contractor on the project, also worked on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon back in the 1980s. It was one of Mark Gutknecht’s early projects with the company.
“We would have to put up fence, and we could not go beyond that fence with any of the construction,” Gutknecht said of working in Glenwood Canyon.
Gutknecht says Kiewit has more than 80 years of construction experience in Colorado.
“The company was doing work on the Eastern Plains, building bridges for U.S. highways out there, and a lot of work at Fort Carson, getting ready for the war,” Gutknecht said. “Kiewit had an office in Fruita, as well.”
CDOT communications manager Elise Thatcher said Kiewit’s experience will be appreciated in the Vail Pass project.
“80 years of experience is really going to make it so that this gets done really well,” she said.