Keeping a stake in I-70’s future |

Keeping a stake in I-70’s future

Allen Best
Freight trucks take up a small section of Interstate 70 near Avon on Wednesday.

On Sept. 23, when darkness gains the upper hand from sunlight in the march toward another solstice, groups interested in the future of Interstate 70 through the Colorado High Country will gather in Silverthorne to enlighten state and federal decision-makers.

Their message will be essentially the same as it has been since 1997. With a large measure of consensus, groups and governments between Idaho Springs and Eagle have agreed solutions from the past won’t work in the future for the increasingly congested freeway. Cars have a far-reaching impact on everything from water quality to noise, and they are calling, instead, for the dawn of a new, rail-based technology installed by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Long-term vs. short-term solutions

Exactly what kind of rail solution, however, is unclear. While a monorail has been the talk for more than five years, it remains more concept than reality, and proponents concede as much. For several years, for example, Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom has been saying I-70 should be widened from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Floyd Hill – about 23 miles of freeway in Clear Creek County. That’s still only to answer today’s problem, he says, and room must be left for a monorail – or something similar – once the technology is firmed up.

“I don’t think the future is rubber-tired, fossil-fueled vehicles,” he says. “I think the future is alternative forms of transportation – and yes, we will have those kinds of transportation for the next 10 to 20 years.”

State transportation planners still haven’t ruled out a potential monorail, in their jargon called an “automated guideway system.” A railroad that uses more-or-less conventional technology – buses that can attach to rails – also figures prominently into their bag of possibilities. As they see it, the buses could be powered by electricity when on the rails between Golden and Silverthorne, and when leaving the corridor on rubber tires for “dispersed locations” like Breckenridge, Winter Park, etc., they could revert to diesel power.

Meeting crucial

By all accounts, the September meeting will be crucial in shaping what may occur. Accordingly, mountain corridor counties intend to get together – independent of the state transportation department – to define their own proposed alternative. Based on what various county commissioners at these meetings have said, the alternative is likely to have several themes, including:

– Short-term highway improvements in Clear Creek County and perhaps west of Vail at Dowd Junction. Idaho Springs is likely to want a cantilevered highway there, similar to what is found in sections of Glenwood Canyon, to avoid expanding the width of the highway. As is, the highway right-of-way extends into the high school football field.

– Insistence on an eventual fixed guideway, or monorail, between Denver International Airport and Eagle County Regional Airport.

The two key decision-makers at the Silverthorne meeting will be Tom Norton, the state’s lead transportation officer, and Bill Jones, regional director of the Federal Highway Administration. The two men, explained one of Jones’ assistants, see their job “as providing an adequate amount of transportation.” Also involved will be federal land agencies, as I-70 crosses property owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Before committing to any alternative, however, Lindstrom says Summit County intends to solicit the advice of its five sub-area planning commissions and, at those meetings, the general public.

Lip service

The process so far has been a tug-of-war between the known and the hypothetical, and between immediate needs and future hopes. A short process in 1997 yielded essentially a straw-poll affirmation of a monorail as the vision of the future for the corridor. The Colorado Legislature’s response, however, was essentially lip service – creating a public agency, the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority, to find such a solution, but giving it no money.

Instead, the state in 1999 launched a far more sweeping effort, one that has so far cost $14 million, to examine all the “reasonable and practical” options for I-70. Results are to be revealed next year in a broad policy document called the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS. Final decisions are unlikely for another three or four years, perhaps longer.

During the PEIS process, state transportation planners and their consultant, J.F. Sato and Associates, have made an uncommon effort to engage groups as disparate as Trout Unlimited and Bicycle Colorado, as well as the expected local governments. This year alone, four major meetings have been held. Not surprisingly, these meetings have not been lovefests. State highway planners have felt unfairly criticized, their motives falsely impugned. Mountain stakeholder groups believe the transportation department has to be pestered into giving the monorail a fair shake. A fixed guideway, if elevated, will reduce environmental damage, they argue, making it superior to other alternatives.

High Country reasoning

For High Country counties, these protests have paid off, however. Most important to Lindstrom and Michael Gallagher, Eagle County commissioner, the state has agreed to retain the idea of a monorail-type system all the way to Eagle County Regional Airport – despite conjecture there would be few users on this western extension. Almost 20 possible configurations remain, including the idea of building mass transit while delaying highway widening, and vice versa.

Monorail supporters also want to keep options on the table for four reasons:

– First, they need proof that the idea can work. People may feel comfortable adopting unproven technology if it’s a $19.95 gamble. Here, the gamble starts at $1 billion, and by some estimates could reach $5 billion. A demonstration project close at hand is needed.

Instructive in this case is Vail’s $2.2 million gamble with a pair of roundabouts. The idea was first proposed in 1988, but officials resisted it until the mid-’90s, even then proceeding amid considerable public doubt. Only half-jokingly, Bob McLaurin, Vail’s new town manager at the time, said he didn’t completely unpack his bags until after Christmas in 1995, when the roundabouts worked despite large crowds and a major snowstorm. Since then, dozens of cities and towns in Colorado and elsewhere have adopted roundabouts after first visiting Vail.

– Unlike Vail, however, Bill Owens showed little evidence of taking risks during his first four years as governor. He may be the single most influential decision-maker regarding I-70 until 2007, when he is term-limited and cannot run for reelection. Monorail supporters say they hope the next governor’s vision of Colorado is more in line with their own.

– Similarly, many monorail supporters think the Colorado Department of Transportation – known as “the highway department” 10 years ago – still remains enamored of highways. That, says one official, takes a generation to change.

– A fourth reason is the federal government. Not only are the feds expected to pay half or more of the costs, but the corridor also crosses large chunks of Forest Service and BLM lands. Also, environmental laws, particularly the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, are powerful bookends to the discussion if, as monorail supporters argue, their alternative has fewer environmentally destructive consequences. Supporters also say they think the I-70 corridor could be shifted to the Federal Railway Administration, considered friendlier toward alternative transportation than the Federal Highway Administration.

Keeping stake

For now, the top decision-maker for the federal government is Jones of the Federal Highway Administration. He has been described by an assistant as an approachable Coloradan who works in Lakewood, lives west of Denver, who skis, hikes and has property in Winter Park.

“He’s just like the rest of us,” says the assistant.

Largely absent from this discussion up until now has been metropolitan Denver – ironic given that I-70 is largely a creation of the city. Without I-70 and its other mountain highways, Denver might as well be Cleveland. When Denver will become engaged in the discussion is unclear.

With or without a modified I-70, though, Colorado is expected to grow tremendously during the next 30 years – from a current population of 4.3 million to 7.2 million, almost double, according to recent estimates from the state demographer’s office. Most of that population growth is expected to occur along the Front Range, but with a proportionately greater increase along the I-70 corridor.

Cecilia Joy, a state regional planning and environmental manager, is urging a discussion of the trade-offs presented by the various alternatives.

“Let’s be honest about it,” Joy says. “Is this what we want for the state of Colorado? That’s what decision-makers need to hear.”

Monorail supporters, meanwhile, posture the choices as being between short-term and long-term solutions.

“(Decisions ahead “will define the character of the state for a generation or more,” says Miller Hudson, executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority. “This is about how we want the state to look in 50 years.”

“I’ll second that,” adds Bert Melcher, the silver-haired Sierra Club representative who 40 years ago participated in the first debate over whether I-70 would slice off a portion of what is now the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. “I want to see what it looks like in 50 years.”

Like most others involved in this new discussion – people generally middle-aged – Melcher says is unlikely to be around to see the fruits of his arguments.

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