Interstate 70 closures at exit 205 in Silverthorne a ‘highly dangerous ballet’
In the winter, when Interstate 70 shuts down at exit 205 due to car crashes or a deluge of snow, Silverthorne police chief John Minor gives his officers the same piece of advice: “You better have your head on a swivel and your head in the game, because it’s about to get a little sporty.”
For the officers and state patrollers who ride herd over the chaotic cattle drive of cars and semis during an interstate evacuation, being on high alert means the difference between life and death.
“If you’re actually on the interstate staffing that closure just before the bridge,” Minor said, “it’s probably one of the most dangerous things you’ll ever do in your life.”
Stationed on icy, wind-chilled roadway, officers do their best not to get run over or freeze their toes off as they corral traffic down into town, making way for tow trucks and the Colorado Department of Transportation’s fleet of plows and sanders.
Minor likened it to a “highly dangerous ballet.”
However, that dance often grinds to a halt once vehicles reach the towns below. While officers stack semis along the sides of the interstate, confused and cranky motorists flood into the interchange connecting Silverthorne and Dillon.
‘BEYOND THAT, IT STINKS’
These highway evacuees make their way down the exit ramp, where officers in the right and left turn lanes wait to welcome them into town. Minor said many drivers take the time to roll down the window to ask the same question: “When is the interstate going to reopen?”
Officers do their best to answer inquiries while funneling the cars away from the exit. Some people go shopping or to a restaurant. Some camp out at nearby parking lot. Some get a hotel room. Some just illegally park along the highways, hoping to be the first to get back on the interstate when it reopens.
Things can break down quickly, with traffic sometimes backing up all the way past Swan Mountain Road at Highway 6 and into northernmost Silverthorne on Highway 9.
“It is a challenge and we can unfortunately have complete gridlock in our community no matter how hard we try,” Minor said. “Every situation is slightly different. Part of it is timing. If it’s at 5 p.m. or 4 p.m., and the ski areas are getting out, it may get away from you. You can deal with absolute chaos for a couple off hours, but beyond that, it stinks.”
Each year, as traffic volume on the I-70 mountain corridor increases, the scope of the problem seems to grow more unwieldy. And CDOT and Summit County have been scrambling for answers.
Since last winter, CDOT has changed its tactics when it comes to closures. Instead of just reacting to accidents, pile-ups and rollovers, the department is staging so-called “safety closures” when the weather turns hairy.
As a result, the number of closures spiked by 42 percent this past winter, going from roughly 300 closures between Golden and Vail to 500 during the 2016-2017 season. However, the total duration of closure time has dropped by 31 percent thanks to these preemptive closures. Ultimately, that’s a win for motorists and for towns like Silverthorne and Dillon.
At a recent meeting between Summit County and CDOT in Breckenridge, Tom Gosiorowski, the county’s public works director, pointed out that CDOT has an effective and fine-tuned plan when it comes to getting cars off the interstate, but not necessarily when it comes to minimizing and managing the impacts on secondary highway systems.
Beyond the general disruption of gridlock, there are serious public safety concerns at play. A closure-related traffic jam along Summit highways can make it difficult for ambulances or fire trucks to respond to emergencies, for example.
Patrick Chavez, CDOT’s operations manager for the I-70 mountain corridor, said the state agency is striving to do a better job in coordinating closure efforts with the towns that are adversely affected by them.
“We’re really looking at working with communities to find where to put those vehicles,” he said at the Breckenridge meeting.
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
Ultimately, communication is the key to ensuring these closures run smoothly.
CDOT is in constant radio contact with the towns and the county when it comes to I-70. However, getting the word out to drivers hasn’t always been as easy. Unless they have CDOT’s phone app or check its social media feeds, pay close attention to roadside message boards or visit the town of Silverthorne’s website, motorists may not know exactly where to go to wait out the closures or when start their drive back home.
That could soon change. The county and CDOT are both testing out communications systems that can target cellphones in specific geographic areas. That means sending custom messages to motorists on where to park during a closure, for example.
Additionally, Minor said the town of Silverthorne has implemented some small changes to better manage these events. Just recently, the town has stationed cone boxes at the 205 interchange, so that officers can immediately begin routing traffic flows off the interstate. Officers will also hand out informational fliers to motorists during closures.
Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson suggested closing Highway 6 near Keystone as one possible measure to ease I-70 closure snarls. He said that could help prevent resort traffic from compounding the mess. The resort often suggests that guests hang tight in the event of an interstate shutdown, but that hasn’t always proven effective.
Minor said he’s had some preliminary conversations with area officials about closing Highway 6 to reduce the traffic impacts during an I-70 shutdown. However, he believes such a measure would have unwanted consequences. A Keystone resident might, for example, find herself stuck when she’s simply trying to get to Summit Cove to pick up her child from school.
“For every solution you sometimes have to be aware you might be creating another problem,” Minor said.
ROAD WORK TO BE DONE
Steadily increasing volumes of traffic coursing through the mountains is a stress test for the roads and bridges that connect Summit County. To fully address closure impacts on Silverthorne and Dillon, Minor said CDOT will eventually have to revamp the 205 interchange.
“At the end of the day, we have 2017 traffic on 1970s infrastructure,” he said.
CDOT has exit 205 on its radar, but improvements — such as the construction of an eastbound auxiliary lane from Frisco to Silverthorne and an overhaul of the interchange itself — will prove expensive. Current estimates have such projects totaling to more than $40 million. That money likely would come from the $2 billion in funds authorized under Senate Bill 17-267, which passed during the last legislative session and seeks to update infrastructure in the state’s rural areas.
“We can’t kid ourselves there,” Minor said. “Someone is going to have to bite the bullet and get that done.”