‘Half-diamond’ back on
Colorado Department of Transportation chief Tom Norton decided Wednesday to build the embattled, $6 million interchange where Interstate 70 passes over U.S. Highway 6 in Eagle-Vail.
Countless Eagle-Vail residents had blasted the interchange, leading the Eagle County Board of Commissioners to question its usefulness, ultimately endorsing it in a split vote.
CDOT, however, will start its search today for a contractor to begin building interchange this summer.
“It’s my decision to move forward with it,” Norton said Wednesday. “I certainly respect the neighborhood and I believe we need to concentrate some future efforts on Highway 6.”
That decision will likely be a big disappointment to the dozens of Eagle-Vail residents who’ve tried to stop the 10-year-old project because they fear it will dump thousands more cars onto their residential stretch of Highway 6. CDOT engineer Ralph Trapani, however, said traffic on Highway 6 will go up about 35 percent by the year 2020 with or without the half-diamond.
“The advantage of the half-diamond is it allows us to make some more improvements on Highway 6,” Trapani said. “Our analysis indicates that with the half-diamond in place, it will reduce traffic on Dowd Junction and it will improve access generally to the town of Vail, Eagle-Vail and the Beaver Creek area.”
The interchange is called a “half-diamond” because it will only have a westbound off-ramp and an eastbound on-ramp, meaning a driver that got on I-70 in Eagle-Vail could only travel east toward Vail.
To deflect a lawsuit the Eagle-Vail Metropolitan District threatened to file against the half-diamond last summer, CDOT created new turning lanes and widened stretches of Highway 6. CDOT still plans to install at least three new stoplights on the highway as part of the half-diamond’s construction.
Until last week, residents had given up all hope they could kill the project. In fact, it would’ve been built last summer but the batch of bids CDOT received from builders were all too expensive.
Early last week, Eagle County Commissioners Tom Stone and Michael Gallagher gave Norton a batch of letters from residents who opposed the interchange.
Norton then said he’d squash the half-diamond if the county reached a consensus not to build it. To reach that consensus, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing on the half-diamond Tuesday.
Though more than two dozen Eagle-Vail residents spoke fiercely against the half-diamond Tuesday, traffic engineers apparently convinced Gallagher and fellow-County Commissioner Arn Menconi of the interchange’s importance in unclogging traffic congestion in the county.
Gallagher and Menconi then voted to endorse the interchange – while Stone, who faces reelection in November, sided with Eagle-Vail residents’ conviction that the half-diamond shouldn’t be built.
“One of the reasons I moved to Eagle-Vail is that it appears to value people rather than special interests,” resident Steve Sheldon said. “We don’t want to be the stepchildren of Eagle County.”
Norton, of course, sided with the engineers, as well as the two commissioners and the smattering of residents who spoke in favor of the half-diamond Tuesday.
“When I look at it from a county-wide point of view and as part of a state-wide system, I believe it’s the right thing to do in the long run,” Norton said.
Trapani said CDOT has already spent more than $1.5 million on the half-diamond and the related Highway 6 work.
The half-diamond will reduce congestion from Eagle-Vail to the Beaver Creek roundabout and through Avon on Avon Road, Trapani said.
“On the one hand, a positive impact is that people who live in Eagle-Vail can easily access I-70,” Trapani said. “The half-diamond really isn’t putting much that much traffic on Highway 6. The biggest increase comes from continuing development.”
A main culprit of that development is the large Village at Avon shopping and residential complex being built between Eagle-Vail and I-70. The town of Avon has annexed all the land for the Village at Avon. By the winter of 2003, The Home Depot and Wal-Mart plan to open megastores in the complex, and 2,400 homes will be built – mostly north of I-70 – in the next two decades.
A main purpose of the half-diamond, meanwhile, is to reduce accidents at the treacherous Dowd Junction interchange in Minturn by reducing the number of drivers who use it to get onto I-70.
“That tight turn and the short acceleration lane are some of the components that are substandard,” Trapani said. “People coming out of Eagle-Vail and Avon will use the half-diamond and it will have proper length acceleration and decelerations lanes.”
But CDOT will not abandon the troubled Dowd Junction once the half-diamond is built, Trapani said.
“I don’t want people to think the half-diamond is our long-term solution to Dowd Junction,” he said. “We are looking to do interchange upgrades – and even replacement, if necessary – but that will probably be very expensive and it could be 10 years away.”
Eagle-Vail resident Charles Penwill said if the problems are at Dowd Junction, CDOT should stay out of Eagle-Vail.
“A half-diamond is very hard to make beautiful,” Penwill said. “We need to start fixing the problems at Dowd no matter how difficult it is, how much it costs and how long a time frame it is.”
Trapani said residents’ involvement –though antagonistic – improved the half-diamond.
“While the half-diamond has got certain regional attributes, the people at Eagle-Vail are going to bear the brunt of those improvements,” he said. “I felt the neighborhood did a good job articulating its concerns and that resulted in improvements on Highway 6.
“I think the pressure from the Eagle-Vail neighborhood has really benefitted the project.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.